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Soy meat, flax seeds and peas are probably the best known such sources. Are there other cheap sources of protein?

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+1 because I'm having the exact same problem. I'm lifting and don't know how to get enough protein without breaking the bank. –  Dorrene Oct 20 '10 at 13:52
    
I suspect those protein drinks are quite good value for money in terms of protein content... (They may taste slightly nasty though!) No quantitative information though. –  Noldorin Oct 20 '10 at 14:39
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They're good for protein, but you miss out on the vitamins and minerals you get from eating real food. –  Dorrene Oct 20 '10 at 17:30
    
@Dorrene: See fitness.stackexchange.com/questions/21/… for various opinions on the efficacy of protein overloading. –  intuited Mar 21 '11 at 4:55
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Insects. If you don't mind the idea in general. –  user2215 Mar 21 '11 at 5:44
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16 Answers 16

up vote 22 down vote accepted

Chick peas/Garbanzo beans, lentils, and other legumes (black beans, Great Northern beans), and nuts (nuts are a bit pricier). Cheap and vegan/vegetarian friendly!

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@Jenn - tell me where, besides peanuts, you find such inexpensive nuts. The stores I have access to sell nuts at a higher price than ground beef or bone-in chicken, that's for sure! –  justkt Oct 20 '10 at 13:43
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@justkt: Beans will always be your go-to cheap protein. You literally cannot get more protein for less money, unless you live somewhere where steak falls from the sky. –  Satanicpuppy Oct 20 '10 at 16:09
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@Satanicpuppy - no argument. It's nuts (ex: pecans, almonds, walnuts) I'm wondering about. –  justkt Oct 20 '10 at 16:15
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Beans don't have complete protein, but rice has the proteins beans are missing, so if you're concerned about complete protein, best to have rice with/next to your beans. –  In the Booley House Oct 20 '10 at 18:40
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@s_hewitt: Well, A) 3 bucks a pound is good for chicken, and B) don't buy beans in little bags from the supermarket (you're paying for their headache in storing them). If you buy bulk, you can get a dollar a pound, easy. usaemergencysupply.com/food_storage/bulk_beans_legumes.htm –  Satanicpuppy Oct 20 '10 at 20:06
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Turkey is one of the cheaper meats - here in the UK anyway. I'm not talking about whole turkeys around Christmas or Thanksgiving time but I know that in my local supermarket turkey mince is significantly better value for money than say beef or chicken.

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Same here, in Michigan, US. –  Echo Oct 20 '10 at 13:37
    
Yup, turkey is the cheapest ground meat here in Pennsylvania, too. Depending on the store, I think it can even be cheaper per pound than eggs or tofu. –  Marti Oct 20 '10 at 14:50
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Also a good (and timely) trick is to buy a whole turkey just after the holidays where turkey is traditionally eaten. Turkeys become very inexpensive at that point. They can be cooked, turkey stock made, whatever you like! –  justkt Oct 20 '10 at 14:57
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Eggs are cheap. But they do have a lot of cholesterol in them.

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you can focus on using more whites than yolks to diminish that potential issue. –  justkt Oct 20 '10 at 13:39
    
@justkt Very true. –  Echo Oct 20 '10 at 13:48
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We buy the egg beaters 100% whites when they're on sale, they get really cheap. They freeze really well, so I'll buy 10 of them at a time. –  stephennmcdonald Oct 20 '10 at 14:26
    
Yup - it is my understanding that egg whites have lots of protein and egg yolks have lots of cholesterol. –  Jonathan Oct 20 '10 at 14:49
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Note that eating a lot of eggs doesn't increase your blood cholesterol level (that's the only aspect of cholesterol related to health problems). Don't avoid pretty much the healthiest food/best source of protein because of an old wive's tale. –  MGOwen Oct 21 '10 at 4:17
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Egg whites are a pretty good one. Our local grocery store even sells them in milk carton containers.

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Agreed! See my comment on Echo's answer –  stephennmcdonald Oct 20 '10 at 14:27
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If you use every bit of a whole chicken it becomes a significant value. The meat can be eaten as a main, but stretched even more by being shredded and used in dishes such as chicken pot pie, enchiladas, quesadillas, and so many other dishes that use some chicken mixed in with vegetables. Once the meat is off the bone the bones should be used to make stock. You can freeze portions of stock that can later be used for soups, stews, and other recipes. If you subtract the cost of canned chicken stock or broth from the cost of your chicken, you will find that your much-tastier stock saves you about half the value of your chicken if not more.

Another option for inexpensive meat is to shop the sales and look for manager's specials - discounts on meat which will expire within the next day. Yes, you've got to cook your manager's special meat immediately, but a quick braise in the crock pot might give you a base you can freeze for a future meal.

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can you clarify what you mean with "the bones should be used to make stock"? Can you use bones to make some kind of food? If I can understand right, bones can be used as a flavor but how do you process them and do the bones have some other functions in cooking? I start to feel pain due to binning chicken bones. –  user2954 Mar 20 '11 at 23:25
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@hhh - to make stock you can take the bones and simmer them for about 5 hours in water with carrots, onions, celery, a bay leaf, and some salt. –  justkt Mar 21 '11 at 0:09
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After you have eaten all the meat from the chicken put everything left (bones, fat, etc) in big pan with some onions. Boil/simmer for 60mins or so. The liquid you drain off is chicken stock. Can be the base for soups, stews, etc –  Martin Beckett Mar 21 '11 at 0:11
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Tofu is a great source of proteins, it's very cheap, but doesn't taste anything. I suggest to cook it with anything tasty you like and the tofu will get all the taste. Ex: throw some tofu in a pad thai = full of cheap proteins and really tasty.

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While cheap is good, health is more important. One thing to watch out with vegetarian proteins is that you are getting what is considered a "complete protein", ie. contains all the essential amino-acids.

I believe quinoa is a complete protein source. It is also possible to mix a few non-complete proteins such as rice and lentils to obtain a complete protein source.

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Agree about health being the top priority and getting complete protein. However keep in mind that even though quinoa (or even wheat, I think) have all the amino acids, their proportions aren't really right for the human body. I think red meat is really hard to beat on that front (and I think red meat is much healthier in general than its given credit for, but that's another conversation). –  Greg Harman Oct 21 '10 at 17:26
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Turns out that combining within the meal thing people used to talk about 30 years ago isn't even necessary. Rice at lunch and lentils at dinner will do just fine. –  maco Oct 22 '10 at 21:16
    
Or just eating literally anything edible. Protein combining isn't necessary -- if you eat enough (real) food, you'll get enough protein. –  Brendan Long Mar 21 '11 at 2:13
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Try the Calorie King site - you can search for tons of foods and input serving sizes. Then just apply your local food cost to find out what is the best value for you.

Even though beans might be the cheapest (which is debatable), you have to eat a lot of them to get the same amount of protein that you would from something else. 1/2c black beans with 9g protein might cost up to 20 cents dried, 25 cents canned. 1oz of chicken with 9g protein could cost as little as $2.99/lb /16 or about 20 cents. Really depends on how cheap your chicken is.

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In The Netherlands, they are promoting insects as food. I haven't tried, but they must be cheap and proteins. Not vegan, though.

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Quinoa is an excellent source of protein.

  • It's good for vegetarians.
  • It is also good for people with allergies to gluten b/c it is gluten free.
  • Culinarily I love the texture and body of the grain. Think of it like couscous but with a little thin shell around each grain.
  • It also comes in different colors (white, red or black) so that you can use that to your advantage when creating a dish.
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Are there locations where quinoa is cheap? –  intuited Mar 21 '11 at 4:23
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I cheated a bit, but here is a link with some details http://lowcarbdiets.about.com/od/whattoeat/a/highproteinfood.htm

If this is right, then tofu may be the cheapest source

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If it's meat protein you're after you can't beat game for value and taste. My local game dealer sells pheasant, partridge, duck, venison, rabbit and hare. The flavour from these meats is wonderful (hare fillets are just like fillet of beef) and you have the added vantage of the meat being 100% free range.

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You should try mung beans! They're delicious and small (lentil-like) - just wash dried beans and then cook them for 30 minutes in boiling water for an al dente like texture. Then you can toss them into anything you like - 100g has 30 calories and nearly 8g of protein.

I add them to canned soups (when I'm feeling lazy) or saute them with ginger, garlic, chilies, and tomatoes when slightly motivated.

VERY cheap and good.

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@Aparma: If you are not also sprouting them, you are missing out on some exciting times. –  intuited Mar 21 '11 at 4:56
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Oats are actually a pretty decent source of protein. Wikipedia (via the USDA nutritional database, which unfortunately does not have a linkable URL for that data) lists their protein content as about 17g per 100g. Note that this is still not as high as most beans, which tend to be up in the mid-20s.

The Wikipedia article also mentions that Oat protein is nearly equivalent in quality to soy protein, which has been shown by the World Health Organization to be equal to meat, milk, and egg protein. I'm not sure what measure of "quality" they are using; I would guess that it might be related to the portion of the full complement of amino acids that constitutes "protein"; soy is well known to contain all of the requisite compounds.

So if oats effectively constitute a "full protein", then they may be a more, or equivalently, economical source of it than common beans which need to be mixed with rice. Note that this is not because rice is more expensive, but because the "protein" proportion of rice is much lower (wikipedia says 7g/100g). Honestly, I suspect that all of this stuff is a bit more complicated than these statistics make it out to be, so please take this with a grain of salt, unless you happen to have a degree in nutrition and/or biology.

They are also generally about as cheap as food gets, at least in these parts. They run about $1 (CAD) per pound or less for lug-free quantities (about 3lb), and they are very compact, absorbing about twice their volume in water. Pretty much the only thing cheaper around here is potatoes. Which are . . ridiculously cheap, but only contain roughly 2g of "protein" per 100g.

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Is this whole oats only? –  msh210 Jul 10 '12 at 21:16
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One item I don't see that's been mentioned --

Canned tuna fish.

I grew up with tuna melts, tuna salad, tuna noodle casserole, etc.

It's very versatile, doesn't have to be cooked (so very quick to prepare) and stores well so you can stock up when it goes on sale.

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Both canned fish and canned meat are cheap -- particularly when you can get lots of them on sale. (Canned chicken will work for many recipes, I'm told.) –  Martha F. Mar 21 '11 at 16:48
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I found an exciting solution to my protein problem! The problem with answers so far is that they are too Western-biased, you cannot find supermarkets everywhere but now a very good versatile tip coming. United Nations' suborganization FAO has a goal to increase the protein intake from insects because:

Of the hundreds of insect species reportedly eaten as human food, the most common come from four main insect groups: beetles; ants, bees and wasps; grasshoppers and crickets; and moths and butterflies. As a food source, insects are highly nutritious. Some insects have as much protein as meat and fish. In dried form, insects have often twice the protein of fresh raw meat and fish, but usually not more than dried or grilled meat and fish. Some insects, especially in the larval stage, are also rich in fat and contain important vitamins and minerals. (Source)

Guess how excited I am: frugal, low-cost and reusable solution! Good after sport -- and it is positive to cut some greenhouse gases. Now the challenge is to find out how to get them, editable species, their cooking and their preservation. More about cooking here.

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