When Meat Prices Go Crazy — best sources of protein on a budget

INTRODUCTION:  Not everyone who eats a “low carb” diet can afford to keep buying meat at the today’s current crazy prices. This article looks at options on the basis of protein to energy, in calories (kcals). Yes, it contains some ‘unconventional’ protein sources, but ones that can still fit within a low carb diet. It provides people with options who may not have a choice.

Meat prices have gone crazy and many people are wondering how to eat well on a budget. Steaks and chops are familiar, but they aren’t the only source of protein — or even the best sources.

A rib steak is only 60% protein but skipjack tuna is 92% protein — which is substantially more, and costs a great deal less. Skinless turkey breast is 86% protein and skinless chicken breast is 75% protein— both higher than a rib steak and both considerably less expensive. While medium-lean ground beef (80% lean) is inexpensive it only has 41% protein, and canned pink salmon, beef- or chicken liver, canned mackerel and sardines all have more protein in them than that!

Note: In this article, protein to energy ratio (P:E in kcals) is protein in calories (kcals) compared to the total amount of calories in one ounce (28g) of the food. This is different than the Ted Naiman’s “P:E ratio“, where energy is “non-fiber carbohydrate + fat”. In this calculation the energy provided by protein is not counted, however not all protein is used for muscle accretion, but in a high protein diet, excess protein is burnt for energy, or stored as fat.

Below are some examples of relatively low-cost animal source foods, sorted from the highest amount of protein to the lowest and as animal products, these are all complete proteins — having all 9 essential amino acids.

Highest protein animal source foods, from highest to lowest

But what to make out of canned pink salmon? “Salmon patties” were a staple in my home growing up. They are made from drained canned pink salmon, mixed with a little chopped celery, minced green onion and egg to bind them (my mom would add breadcrumbs but I omit them and they come out fine!). They are formed into patties and either fried in a bit of fat or cooked in a non-stick skillet. They are an excellent source of highly bioavailable protein, a good source of omega 3 fatty acids, and are inexpensive and delicious! They can be served with homemade cabbage salad (Cole slaw), or a side of cooked vegetables…and yes, frozen vegetables are just as nutritious as fresh, and much less expensive.

Canned tuna is delicious mixed up with a bit of mayonnaise, with or without some minced celery and of course is terrific added to casseroles that for those not following a low carb diet, are made with pasta. I find that chunks of lightly cooked cauliflower stands in well for noodles and these casseroles can be a complete meal with the addition of a few handfuls of fresh or frozen vegetables.  They are also wonderful with a sprinkle of grated cheese on top.  Tuna is a great source of protein as well as omega 3 fat, and is often on sale. Buying a few cans to have on hand makes it easy to reach for at the end of a long day.

Some people don’t like liver because their only experience with it is something akin to shoe leather, but when it is bought fresh and cooked on a barbeque (or broiled in the oven) until “just cooked”, it is delicious. Chicken liver can be cooked that way too, but is also delicious pan fried with onion, mushroom and peppers, or made into a pí¢té.

Spinach soufflé

Eggs can provide the protein in a spinach soufflé which is delicious with or without some grated parmesan or swiss cheese. Adding extra egg white makes it even higher in protein, and makes for an even better soufflé!


Eggs can stand on their own served as shakshuka as the main dish for dinner. A cucumber and tomato salad makes a delicious side dish and all together, this is a very affordable and tasty meal!

What about some non-animal sources ?

Non-Animal Source of Protein

Ma-Po tofu

Tofu is very versatile and to many people’s surprise, contains all 9 essential amino acids.  It comes in so many forms — from firm blocks, to silky and custard-like, and can be cooked into so many wonderful dishes. If you haven’t tried Chinese Ma-Po tofu, you are missing something! It has a delicious sauce made from garlic, green onions and brown bean sauce (and for non-vegetarians includes a small amount of ground meat), and is simply just delicious! Serve it with stir fried broccoli or bok choi and garlic.

fish without bones

Firm tofu, cut in small rectangles, dipped in egg and pan fried with some ginger and green onion and finished by steaming with a bit of broth is just delicious!  The Chinese fondly refer to tofu as “meat without bones” and I call the egg dipped fried with green onion and ginger, as “fish without bones” (because this is often the way the Cantonese prepare fish).

Highest protein non-animal source foods, from highest to lowest

While many people who eat low carb think that legumes such as lentils and chickpeas are “off limits”, 1/2 cup of legumes contain approximately the same amount of carbs as 1/2 cup of yam or squash, but comes with an added bonus of 7g of protein. For those that are concerned about anti-nutrients in pulses, these are reduced with soaking and cooking, and not using the soaking water for cooking them reduces most of the gas that people think of when they think of pulses.

[Note: November 7, 2021 – Best to not purée cooked legumes, as they will raise blood sugar more than if left intact.]

Animal proteins are complete proteins which means they contain all 9 essential amino acids. While lentils and other pulses have a good protein to energy (kcals) ratio, it is important to note that they are missing amino acids. That is why they are considered “incomplete proteins”.  For example, lentils are missing the sulfur-containing amino acids methionine and cysteine, and pinto beans are missing methionine and tryptophan. Since pulses are missing amino acids, it is important for those who are vegetarian to be sure to eat other foods during the day that contain the missing amino acids. It used to be believed they had to be eaten at the same meals, but that is not necessary.

Protein in Some Nuts, Seeds and Grains

Highest protein per kcal foods, from highest to lowest (nuts, seeds and grains)

Nuts and seeds also provide some protein, but are easy to over-eat. Nuts are high in fat and like hard cheese can stall weight loss, if over eaten. Same with nut butters like peanut butter or tahini which is made from ground sesame seeds. It is helpful to think of these as fat sources that have some protein, rather than protein sources. It is best to use them as a decoration to make other foods like salad taste good, rather than as a protein source.

Cottage Cheese – a surprising low carb high protein staple

Have a look at the protein to energy (kcal) ratio of pressed cottage cheese (see photo) in the table, below.  Ounce for ounce, pressed cottage cheese provides way more protein than steak, or ground beef, and even more than turkey or chicken breast!  Who would have thought? Once the bane of calorie counter’s existence, cottage cheese is an excellent protein source for those following a low carb diet, even high than eggs!

Low carb diets — especially the high fat ones always seem to highlight eggs, but eggs are only 33% protein (see table, above) whereas pressed cottage cheese is 84% protein, Greek yogurt is 74% protein, and creamed cottage cheese is 51% protein!

Highest protein per kcal foods, from highest to lowest (dairy source, with eggs)

Different Types of Cottage Cheese Compared [Added November 8, 2021)

I decided to add this  clarification to explain the different types of cottage cheese. 


Pressed cottage cheese” is sometimes called baker’s cottage cheese, or “Farmer’s cheese”.

“Dry cottage cheese” is just the curd that is used for making “creamed cottage cheese”, but without the liquid.  In years gone cream was added to the dry curd to make “creamed cottage cheese” hence the name — but now it is a mixture of milk with various gums, such as carrageenan, guar gum and xanthan gum.
As can be seen from the table below, these have very different amounts of protein per ounce.
Difference between dry cottage cheese, pressed cottage cheese and regular (creamed) cottage cheese
But how does one eat pressed cottage cheese? It can be mixed with egg, herbs such as parsley and green onion, formed into patties and fried like the salmon patties mentioned above, or mixed with egg and/or spinach and used as a filling for lasagne or manicotti.
chicken noodle lasagne

Seriously, low carb lasagne is a “thing”! Thin slices of deli chicken make a terrific low-carb substitute for the noodles in lasagne (just choose brands that don’t have added sugar) and the cottage cheese and egg filling can be rolled up in strips of zucchini, like manicotti.

Creamed cottage cheese is an excellent protein source for breakfast or lunch and Greek yogurt is a good source, and delicious with 1/2 cup of berries thrown. Even though Greek yogurt pales in comparison to cottage cheese in terms of its protein to kcal ratio, it still scores higher than steak — and higher than eggs!

low carb manicotti, in process

There are so many good sources of inexpensive protein that can stand on their own, or mixed together to make so many delicious combinations!  Looking to other cultures that use these ingredients is a great way to find out what to do with them. Chinese, Korean and Japanese have wonderful easy recipes for tofu.  Hispanic cultures including Mexican have so many ways to cook pinto beans, kidney beans, and black beans — both with and without meat and for lentils and chickpeas you need not look far. Middle Eastern recipes abound using these, as do South Asian recipes from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. And don’t forget the lowly “offal” meats, like liver and heart! These are inexpensive and good sources of complete protein. Finding out how to cook them properly can make all the difference.

Protein is a very important macronutrient needed as a building block for the body. Carbohydrate and fat are the body’s energy sources, but the body can make its own glucose from protein or fat, provided they are supplied in sufficient quantities. Protein is so important that according to the “protein leverage hypothesis“, people will keep eating and eating until their body gets the protein it needs. Targeting protein first is important to keep from overeating foods that are “protein dilute”. And it is not only children and adolescents that need protein, but older people need more protein as they age, to lower the risk of sarcopenia (muscle wasting).

A “low carb” diet need not fit a philosophy, but a definition. What makes a diet low carb is how few carbs it has, not what the source of those carbs are.

Final Thoughts…

Yes, meat prices are crazy these days, but steaks and chops are not the only source of protein and not even the best source!  Salmon, tuna, chicken and turkey breast are all excellent sources and one doesn’t need to eat the expensive variety to benefit.  Frozen pink salmon or canned tuna are fine! And don’t forget cottage cheese!

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