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Unburdening: The Tyranny of Lean Meat

September 11, 2014

Cooking healthful, affordable meals for a family doesn’t have to be a burden. I’ve been there. I’ve lived through the challenges. And for the most part, I’ve found ways to overcome them. Occasionally, one still raises its ugly head.

Thanks to a recent study from North Carolina State University, and the media attention it has received, the barriers to cooking meals at home have been painstakingly documented. My goal is to offer solutions to as many of these problems as I can.

Yesterday, I smashed the idol of the ideal family meal. Today, let’s tackle the tyranny of lean meat.

One of the major barriers to better home cooking is expense. This study repeated a very familiar trope, “The ingredients that go into meals considered to be healthy—fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats—are expensive.”

Yes, some organic and other sustainably, locally produced ingredients cost more than their commoditized industrial agricultural counterparts. But I’m a firm believer that you don’t have to be rich to eat well. Better meat can be quite expensive. Especially the lean meat that is held in such high esteem by nutritionists.

The simple solution is to just embrace fattier meats.

Let’s take sausage for starters. Whole Foods sells some big fat fresh sausages in their meat case. Sure, you could probably make it yourself and save some money, but we’re talking about making cooking easier. All of the meat at Whole Foods has to pass their basic standards, so you are guaranteed that whatever you get is going to come from a better source than what you can get at a conventional supermarket.

Sausage is full of fat, but it’s also full of flavor. That means that you don’t have to use a lot of it. Two of those sausages are typically enough to feed my family of four. One simple preparation is taking a large pan of chunked up root vegetables tossed in olive oil, salt and pepper; and dotting the top with chunks of sausage from two links. The whole pan gets roasted, which leaves the cook with plenty of time to set the table, maybe make a salad, or spend time with the family.

If you load up that pan with sweet potatoes, carrots, red onions, and beets, you’ve got a lot of color on your plate. Starchier potatoes can be used too, and are delicious, but there are nutritionally better choices.

Or, you could use that same sausage with a giant pot of lentils. These small pulses cook much quicker than dried beans. The sausage can go right in the pot, or you can cook it separately and serve slices of the meat on top. But there is no reason that each person has to have any more than a couple ounces of sausage.

Similar strategies of simply eating smaller portions of fatty meat open the door to choices like boneless skinless chicken thighs (which are still mighty fatty), bacon, ground beef, lamb shoulder, and more.

Fatty meat also has another advantage. The fat itself. Pork belly is very cheap. And roasting it in the oven is super easy. It only takes a few slices of the stuff beside some creamy polenta to make a satisfying meal. A thrifty cook will reserve the rendered pork fat in the roasting pan to enrich some pot of beans, or wilt some cabbage in a pan. The fat that renders from browning ground beef can be used later to add great flavor to oven roasted potatoes. Bacon fat is a perfect partner for making scrambled eggs. I think you get the picture.

There are also some who argue that the fat from animals that are raised on pasture have more omega-3 fatty acids.

Lean, tender meats have their place. Occasionally, one might like to relish in the luxuriously silky texture of a rare filet mignon. But for the most part, I want flavor. And that’s where lean meats fall short.

Better meat will always cost more per ounce than its conventionally raised counterpart. But even the fattier versions can be better for you, plus the increased cost can help motivate you to make meat more of a flavoring to the food you cook than the main part of the dish. That makes room for more whole grains and vegetables, which aren’t without challenges of their own.

But that will have to wait until next time.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 11, 2014 9:44 am

    Where do you find cheap pork belly? And don’t tell me the Asian Supermarket. In my neck of the woods it’s hard to find, and when you do its price is comparable to pork chops.

    Also, maybe it’s obvious, but if folks want less fat it’s easy enough to slice and pre-cook those sausages and drain before adding to the rest of the food.

  2. EPT permalink
    September 11, 2014 10:19 am

    One cut of meat that appears to be more available in the Capital District is boneless short ribs. They are generally priced well and when sauteed (marinated or not) they are very tender, juicy and great flavor. If you don’t see them at the Whole Foods meat counter, they’ll make them up for you. They are starting to show up at Shoprite and Price Chopper too.

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