How to stretch a chicken

We love meat at our house. James would live off bacon if we let him and Travis is a self-described steak and potatoes guy. But we’ve been moving towards a more vegetarian diet of late. This is for a couple of reasons – environmental (meat is crazy resource intensive) and economic (good meat costs a lot, as it should). So when I buy meat I find myself working to stretch it out. I love the idea of “meatless mondays” but if I have meat leftovers to use, or meat that I thawed over the weekend that needs to get eaten, well, it becomes meaty monday. I’d rather focus on how much meat I buy in a week and how far I can make it go, not on which days of the week do I eat meat.

Chicken is an especially great choice for this stretching-out trick. Most of us do not buy whole pigs or cows, but a whole chicken is quite manageable and can be stretched out for almost a week. I usually buy two chickens in one month and find my family enjoys a good amount of chicken throughout that month. One 5lb free-range organic chicken purchased at our local coop from a local farmer costs $28.00. So that’s $56.00 a month, or 7% or so of our monthly food budget (and before you start doing the math, our food budget is $700.00 a month, and this includes alcohol, eating out, and household stuff purchased at grocery stores such as shampoo and hand soap – more on this fascinating topic at the end of this month, which will be the 6-month mark of the grand budgeting project I started last October).

The prices in italics are my estimates for what the item would cost if produced by someone else and purchased at the store.

Thursday: buy $28.00 free-range, organic 5lb chicken and thaw.

Friday: de-bone chicken and cook the bones down into a large and lovely broth – any basic cookbook will cover broth-making, but check out Ratio for a good breakdown and discussion. Set aside two quarts and one pint of meaty broth (quarts in the fridge, pint in the freezer) and use the rest to make a noodle soup for 8. Figure approximately $1.65/pint for organic broth and each person ate 1 pint or so of broth – $13.20.

Saturday: braise thighs, wings, and drumsticks – dinner for Riva, Travis, and James, and a bit leftover for Travis’s lunch. Yeah, this was a big dinner, I could’ve stretched more here! Figure organic chicken non-breast meat is $5.30/lb and thighs, wings, and drumsticks makes 2lbs combined – $10.60.

Sunday: bake breasts and slice up half of one for dinner-size cobb salads with grated beets, hard-boiled eggs, and roasted veggies for Riva, Travis and James. The other half is sliced up for James and Travis lunches (yes, I make lunch for both my boys – combined, they’re the equivalent of triplets). Figure organic chicken breast meat is $8.00/lb and one breast is .75lb – $6.00.

Monday: use quarts of chicken broth to make a chicken, vegetable, and pasta soup for Riva, Travis, and James’ dinner. Leftovers for Riva and James’ lunch the next day. Four more pints of broth – $6.60.

Tuesday: 3/4 of second breast is sliced for chicken and cheese crepes for Riva, Travis, and James’ dinner. Remainder is sliced up for Travis’ lunch. Figure organic chicken breast meat is $8.00/lb and one breast is .75lb – $6.00.

So there we go. One chicken fed how many people? I still have one pint of chicken broth in the freezer, and I stretched a $28.00 chicken purchase into approximately $42.40 worth of chickeny meals. The trick is to get away from MEAT as the main part of a meal. Chicken broth is a great flavor enhancer – any soup made with chicken broth and chicken bits will be tastier and more filling than water-based (or, dare I say it, veggie broth-based). Or use the broth to cook rice or risotto.

And just because you are using meat, don’t get distracted and forget about the vegetables and grains. Meat works best as a supplement if the other foods are ridiculously full of flavor and aren’t being treated simply as color on the plate. Flip that idea around and make the vegetable the big attraction with the meat there to fill the dish out. This is true of all meats. Think delicious taco salad with grated cabbage, carrots, beets, and just 2-3oz of thinly sliced pork loin; a roast beef sandwich that is light on the meat but packed with onion relish, homemade mayo, and a huge pile of micro-greens tossed with vinegar; or a pasta sauce made from a chicken stock reduction with cream and roasted brussels sprouts and walnuts. None of that sounds remotely lacking in flavor or satisfaction. More and more cookbooks are addressing the issue of leftovers and providing great suggestions for using smaller amounts of meat. My favorite, hands down, is Judith Jones’ The Pleasures of Cooking for One – her recipe for minced chicken on toast will definitely be used in my next whole chicken week.

Here are the tips in easy to absorb format:

  • regardless of the size of the meat purchase, always buy bone-in as any butchering off the bone will result in lost meat, and cooking meat bone-in enhances flavor so that eating less of that meat in one sitting is still satisfying;
  • if you butcher your meat off the bone before serving, save the bones! Meat from uncooked bones will make a lighter broth and meat from roasted bones will create a darker broth – both are delicious and useful;
  • use the meat only once as the main attraction – this can be a whole roasted chicken, poached breasts with rice and veggies, or grilled thighs and drumsticks; and
  • any remaining meat should be treated as a supplement to a veggie-based meal.

Ultimately, of course, stretching meat also means stretching and changing our expectations. As soon as we realize that we don’t need to eat until we are stuffed, or that a small amount of meat and a large amount of vegetables makes a lovely meal, we’ll be closer to being cooks and consumers who can stretch a dollar, save the world, and still love their food. I say yay to that.

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2 comments

  1. Melissa

    This is so great, Riva. I love the leftovers ideas, but I most appreciated the economic breakdown of it all. So often we get sticker-shocked by the price of quality meat, without breaking the cost down into meals and portions that are sensible and vegetable-and/or-whole grain centric. Love it!

  2. Brenna

    I agree! The economic breakdown was a great visual for me. I spend a lot on good meat, and I fully expect to. But getting better at planning ahead and making better use of leftovers to help stretch it out is an area I want to get better at. Hearing the whole week in meals was really helpful.

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