I grew up in the farm country of the Midwest. Our neighbors to the right had horses and pastures, our neighbors to the far left had chickens that roamed aimlessly around their large coop. Long were the summer days, when we were young, during which my little sister and I ran barefoot around our property, playing hide and seek in the tall grass. (And although I do realize how “Little House on the Prairie” that sounds, I also, up until that point, had never had more fun than those early summer days!)
Growing up in farm country, you can’t help but appreciate the healthy eating farm-to-table mentality at a very young age. Healthy foods and proteins literally grew up right under our noses. We didn’t have to work very hard to find recipes that satisfied our hunger cravings, as well as fit the bill of food that was rich in nutrients, grains, and proteins. Since a lot of our neighbors grew their own proteins in one way or another, it was never very expensive to achieve our complete protein needs either. However, fast forward several years, and our busy lifestyles and food choices don’t always align with the values that we grew up with, or with what’s easiest on our wallets. We don’t always remember to make good, healthy, or affordable choices, and ultimately, we end up settling for whatever meal choice is the fastest, not the ones with the most vitamins and nutrients. And unfortunately, not the ones with which we could save our hard-earned dollars. At least I know I’m guilty of that!
We oftentimes forget about the smaller forms of protein. As well as the cheaper ones. The days of roasting a whole chicken to get your protein are over! At least until you have the time and willingness to roast one, because my goodness, they are good! However, until then, we’ve complied a whole list of cheap and filling protein sources that will fit your needs, whatever they may be. Whatever form you need, if you’re into whey protein, some good old seafood, or if you need a vegan option, we’ve got an available protein source for you. Many of which, you already have in your fridge or pantry. Read on for some healthy, easy, and cheap protein sources.
From the Sea
Let’s start with some seafood options. Fish are plentiful and you can get pretty creative with how you cook it. And if you’re squeamish like me, and don’t actually want to catch it, you’re in luck, because while a lot of fresh seafood is known to be expensive, what’s so great about canned seafood is it’s very affordable, and thus, a good option for those of us on a budget.
Canned tuna contains a very high amount of protein. There’s 42 grams of protein in each can. It’s a wonderful, filling snack that can be used in many different recipes. Most recently, tuna manufacturers have been coming out with flavored tuna. If you haven’t already you should try the spicy tuna. It’s my favorite and makes a zesty snack when you squeeze a little twist of lemon over it. As an added bonus tuna is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids as well, which helps to fight any inflammation that may be lurking unknowingly in your body. You can find tuna in the canned goods section of your local supermarket, and it usually runs around $1 or so per a 5-ounce can. A great deal! (Take note of the fact that tuna does contain mercury, which you don’t want too much of in your system, so it is best to limit your tuna intake to a few servings per week!)
Sardines are another really good source of protein for those that can stomach them. I personally can’t, but I sure wish I was able to because just one can of these little silver darlings contains about 23 grams of highly absorbable protein as well as many other nutrients like vitamin D and B12. A 3.75-ounce can of sardines goes for only $2. If you’re brave enough to try them, I recommend using your favorite crackers and topping them with the sardines and a condiment of your choice. Anything from mustard, to mayo, to hot sauce is great, (so I’m told by my husband.) And he should know; he’s a sucker for sardines so they find their way onto our shelves often!
I am, however, a big fan of salmon. I like it fresh, frozen, or canned. And as a can of salmon retails for about $3.60 for a 6-ounce can, we have it often in my household. It’s a versatile snack that can definitely be made into a meal, when needed. In my house, we’ve done salmon burgers, salmon salad (which was a hit,) and even eaten it plain with a little salt, black pepper, and crushed, roasted red pepper. Along with its great taste, salmon is literally packed with essential amino acids that will boost your immune system and will help to keep you and your family healthy all year long.
From the Farm
Excellent sources of protein come from the acres and acres of farmland peppered across our nation. We often think of the obvious sources like chicken, beef, or other poultry you’d find there, but read on for a usually forgotten, but delicious form of protein.
One of the best, protein filled foods from the farm is turkey. The cheapest form of this succulent bird is ground turkey. It’s wonderful because it’s such a lean and low-calorie meat and you can do a ton with it as far as recipes. On average, the cost for a pound of ground turkey is anywhere from $3 to $7, and a 3-ounce serving provides you with about 23 grams of lean protein. If you’re looking for a quick new recipe for ground turkey, look no further than turkey tacos. A huge hit in my family; spread a little fresh salsa over a warm mound of ground turkey nestled on an equally warm tortilla. Add plenty of spices and all the original taco toppings that we love so much, and you’ll be smiling to yourself the rest of the evening!
From the Pantry
A lot of small snacks that are filled with protein, you may possibly already have sacked away in your pantry. Let’s look at quick, clean, easy food items that will be sure to boost your protein intake and load you up with nutrient packed vitamins and minerals.
Natural Peanut Butter
Natural peanut butter is one of those things that we all almost constantly have around the house. It’s extremely cost friendly as its only about $2.50 per a 16-ounce jar. Aside from being one of those dense, protein-rich foods, peanut butter has exceled in studies for being linked to preventing things like heart disease and diabetes. You can pair it with just about anything as well. Spread it across some celery, fruit, or even add it to your oatmeal in the morning. (It’s really good, trust me!)
Sunflower seeds are tiny, but mighty in the area of protein! They’re loaded with the good stuff. Namely, protein, vitamin E, and magnesium. They’re also a fantastic vegan-friendly option if you’re looking for one. You can find them in your local grocery stores for only about $2 per pound. You can stir them in, or sprinkle them over just about anything, not to mention roast them in the oven. This is my favorite way to eat them. After they’re out of their shell, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and arrange the seeds in a single layer on a baking sheet. Toast the seeds quickly, 7 to 10 minutes will do just fine. Whenever you dry-roast sunflower seeds like this, some of the seeds natural oils will seep out of the seeds and they make them smell heavenly and look deliciously shiny and slick. Let them cool to a toasty warm and enjoy!
Black beans are just about the most versatile source of cheap protein that our money can buy. Beans are a plant-based protein and as an added bonus contain quite a bit of fiber. Black beans are just about the perfect quick snack as well, because they help make you feel full and satisfied for longer in between meals. On average, a 15-ounce can of protein and fiber filled beans cost around $1 in most of the grocery stores you frequent on a weekly basis. You just can’t beat that price! Try adding them to soups, salads, tacos, (like those delicious ground turkey tacos we were discussing earlier,) or your chili for a beautifully textured, full-flavored meal.
Whey Protein Powder
Whey protein powder was new to me, but once I discovered it, I won’t go going back. You’ll definitely want this one stocked in your pantry for certain! In my research for this miracle powder I found out that it’s made from the liquid portion of milk during the cheesemaking process. (Which is an article for another day, because I found that fact immensely interesting!) Other than the protein punch that this stuff packs, is the incredible ability it has to increase muscle mass and strength when added to your daily workout routines. Whey protein powder is wildly cost effective at just $0.40 a serving. And just one scoop of it contains 20 grams of protein. Whey powder doesn’t taste very good on its own, so I recommend trying a flavored one. They have strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate flavors to name a few, that you can add to your smoothies, baked goods, or just about anything else you’d like. Give yourself permission to get creative with it!
Good, old-fashioned peanuts make the list next. Not only are they rich in protein, but they are packed with fiber and healthy fat (aka not saturated fat). The kind of fat that actually assists in lowering your cholesterol. (Sign me up for this one!) There’s about 38 grams of protein in just a cup of peanuts. Not to mention that they contain all eight essential amino acids that we should be getting so it makes them a complete source of protein as opposed to proteins that lack a few essential amino acids, so while still good for you, other sources of protein tend to be incomplete in comparison. They’re cost effective as well as they tend to fly off the shelves at about $2 to $6 a jar or canister. These little nuts go a long way in ensuring your protein, vitamin, mineral, and essential amino acid needs will be met!
Pumpkin seeds are similar to sunflower seeds, but I always think of sunflower seeds as a summertime snack. I associate pumpkin seeds with the crisp and crackle of the autumn air and the turning of the leaves to colors like molten gold, rust, and fiery red. An ounce of pumpkin seeds contains 7 grams of protein. They make an awesome, on the go snack and as a plus, they’re also filled with antioxidants like vitamin E and phenolic acid which help reduce inflammation in the body. Pumpkin seeds can usually be purchased in bulk for about $3 per pound.
Lentils are a very affordable food and an excellent source of protein. They’re a plant-based protein so it’s a very heart healthy choice, as well as a vegan source of protein if you need, or desire that option. One cup of lentils contains 18 grams of protein. A very versatile legume, try adding it to soups, or heavy winter stews. Lentils are a cheap high protein food, and when bought in bulk you can find them for around $1.50 per pound.
Oats are a popular cheap protein source that you can easily find and afford. A lot of stores sell oats in bulk for only about $1.30 per pound. Oats are naturally gluten-free so if you have a gluten issue these would be a perfect protein choice for you. You can do a ton of different things with oats, so don’t limit yourself to just oatmeal, as delicious as that is. Break out of the box by trying different oat-based recipes like, Strawberry Cheesecake Overnight Oats, or Chocolate Peanut Butter Overnight Oats, (I can’t wait to try this one!)
From the Fridge
Other than the poultry-based proteins, I think most of us think of these few protein-packed refrigerated goodies anytime protein is mentioned. All of these are excellent sources of protein and a great way to get your daily dose of dairy and calcium!
The most obvious form of protein currently hiding in our fridges is milk. Just one cup of whole milk contains over 8 grams of highly absorbable protein. Along with that, milk is jammed packed with vitamins, and minerals. A half-gallon of milk has an average price of about $2.50. And if you’re lactose intolerant, don’t worry my friend, soy milk is still an excellent source of protein at about 8 grams per one cup of soy milk. And adding any kind of milk to your morning smoothies makes a wonderful protein-rich beverage for anyone who is needing or wanting to gain weight and build muscle mass. It’s an excellent healthy choice to sip on throughout the day, so drink up, and don’t be afraid of that milk mustache!
Eggs have long since been considered one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet! They’re usually quite affordable at an average price of $2 to $4 per dozen or so. One large egg contains 6 grams of protein. And they’re chock full of healthy fats. One of the best things about eggs though, in my opinion, is that they act as a bit of a hunger suppressant so that you end up feeling full longer after eating them. Cheap, full of healthy stuff, and a great hunger suppressant; you’ll feel egg-cellent after eating them. (Sorry, too much? I just couldn’t help it!)
Cottage cheese is another one that most of us seem to have on hand a lot. It’s a good thing too, because that creamy, deliciously lumpy serving cup of cottage cheese has over 23 grams of protein! You can find it at any of the grocery stores you frequent for about $3 per 16-ounce tub or container. Cottage cheese is a great, filling little snack that you can do a ton with. Add it to your salad, sprinkle some cinnamon on top for a dessert type snack, or give it a little kick with a drizzle of barbecue sauce. (While that one may sound weird, cottage cheese isn’t even consumed in my household without a good application of barbecue sauce on top!) Try it; you won’t regret it.
Greek yogurt, specifically plain Greek yogurt, is an amazing source of protein. An 8-ounce serving gives you 17 grams of protein. For reference, this is nearly double the amount that can be found in regular, plain yogurt. It’s very cost effective for your budget as well. A 24-ounce canister of plain Greek yogurt is about $5. A wonderful deal! It can be used in limitless ways as well. Spread it on your morning toast, add it to cake batter for more moisture and better texture, make it into a luxuriously creamy dressing for your salads, or turn it into a zesty dip for some fun, fried food for date night!
No matter which way you slice it, protein is essential for our health and there’s a lot of ways available for you to achieve your protein needs in a cost-effective way, that’s also easy on your budget. Keep in mind the simplicity of the items on this list, most of which you already have in your grocery bag, your pantry, or in your fridge. You don’t need to live in farm country or next door to a chicken coop for you reach your full, affordable protein potential. (Although if you do; don’t underestimate the fun of running barefoot through the tall grass every once in a while!)