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Marked-down meat is a frugal treat

'Manager's special' hamburger or chicken means big savings for you. And yes, 'old' meat still tastes good. Ask me how I know.

By Donna_Freedman Mar 9, 2012 5:14AM
Image: Packaged ground beef (© Frank Bean/Uppercut RF/Getty Images)Startled by the price of meat? You're not imagining things: It has gotten more expensive lately. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, meat and poultry prices rose between 3.4% and 12.1% in January.

I see two options for shoring up your grocery budget. One is vegetarianism, a perfectly viable lifestyle choice. The other option is to change the way you buy meat: Choose only the cuts that are on sale, and begin all your shopping at the "manager's special" section of the meat department.

A friend of mine calls it "used meat." I think that's funny. I also think it's smart.

This animal protein is marked down -- sometimes considerably -- because it's close to its sell-by date. But not past it, so why are you making those faces? (Post continues after video)

If you're trying to trim your food budget and you don't want to go vegetarian, check out this source of cut-rate protein. Just be prepared to use or freeze it quickly.

Late-date carnivore bait

I'm three-quarters of the way to meatless living myself, since I buy and consume relatively little animal flesh. Most of my meat purchases are used as flavoring: a little ground chuck in a pot of chili, some neck bones in a mess of pinto beans, a pound (or less) of beef cubes for stew.

Those "beef cubes" are sometimes home-hacked: I'll find a deeply discounted steak for $1.50 to $1.75 and cut it up to make stew or vegetable soup. In other words, multiple servings versus one slab o' steer with a baked potato and salad.
The manager's special bin is by no means a sure bet. At least half the time, I don't see anything I want: Either the prices are still too high or it's meat I'm not interested in cooking.

But I always check it, even when I've just stopped in for milk and bananas. You never know what you're going to find.

Food safety

When I do find the super-cheap stuff, I stock up. Always having extra flesh in the freezer keeps me from having to pay full price. I can't remember the last time I bought meat that was not from the markdown bin or at a major loss-leader price.

When you buy ground meat close to the end of its useful span, be ready to cook or freeze it immediately. It probably won't hold over for long in your fridge. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's fact sheet "Ground Beef and Food Safety" tells you everything you need to know about chop meat.

Larger cuts in the markdown bin usually have more than a day left before their sell-by dates. Even so, I'd suggest you err on the side of caution and throw your finds into the freezer unless you're going to cook them right away.

Ask the meat department manager if there's a particular time or times when the marked-down goods are put in the meat case. Maybe it's first thing in the morning, or just before closing.

But do give it a try. If you're like me, you'll relish that meat all the more knowing its original per-pound cost equaled an hour of work at the federal minimum wage.

Do you pounce on "used meat"? Or do you say "eewwww" and move on to the full-freight steak?

More on MSN Money:

Mar 9, 2012 9:04AM
I too am a fan of the "used meat". Every Saturday one of the local grocery stores in my area discounts it's poultry significantly....making this protein all the better. Just nabbed a couple of trays of chicken wings for about $3 each. I take them home, remove them from the original packs and put them in vacuum sealed bags. Into the freezer they go and keep very well. As for red meat, pricing has gone crazy. Right around New Years while shopping I noticed a piece of meat around the size of a loaf of was beautiful....AND it was priced at over $100....I began to feel faint! .....
Mar 9, 2012 6:38PM
I recently began purchasing end cuts of meats and cheeses. Last week a big pack of cheese was 40 cents and quite fresh.
Mar 13, 2012 6:59PM
I have also found that Fred Meyer has the best selection and deals for manager's special meats.  I look for seriously marked down beef or pork ribs,  brisket or other pot roast type cuts. I don't freeze them--they get tossed into the crockpot the next morning and cooked all day and show up as bbq style ribs, get  pulled for bbq pork/beef sandwiches or shredded for soft tacos.
Mar 12, 2012 1:17PM

This is a great idea, especially if you have some freezer space.  By the way, I am loving Frugal Cool.  It is neat to get frequent posts by Donna!


Mar 9, 2012 1:33PM
At my supermarket there is always "used meat" and it is frozen already.  I always pick up at least some ground beef and it helps keep things cold in my insulated bag on the way home.  Why would you not buy it this way?
Mar 24, 2012 9:46PM
One other frugal hack I forgot to mention: If you find a steak in the used-meat bin, cut it up for stew or vegetable soup. You'll get half a dozen meals instead of just one.
Mar 24, 2012 9:44PM
@Sue_Joy: I bought a chest freezer four years ago and it's paid for itself and then some. It's great to be able to buy half a dozen whole chickens at a time when they're 79 cents a pound, or to pick dozens of pints of the free blackberries that grow everywhere here in Seattle.
Bread available for 99 cents a loaf? Fine, I'll take four. Butter a dollar a pound with sale/coupon deal? Into the freezer it goes.
Big score in the used-meat bin? Stock up, without worrying how I'll fit it all in the tiny freezer atop my apartment-sized fridge. Last year I found bacon being remaindered for 99 cents per package even though it was a couple of weeks from its sell-by date -- and once it's frozen, it'll keep.
I love the chest freezer.
Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

Mar 9, 2012 10:52PM
I have been doing this for many years. I have discovered that there are times of day when the "remaindered' meat is put out, and you are going to have the best choice. I have also discovered that some grocery stores put their "moving toward sell date" meat out at a reduced price earlier than others. I live in the same major metropolitan area as Ms. Freedman, and I have found my best reduced-price meat deals consistently at Fred Meyer, which is part of the Kroger chain.

At Safeway and Fred Meyer I also consistently find that evening's fish entree at half price. Crab seems to go in the reduced-price fish bin very quickly, and still has plenty of official shelf-time left. I paid $3.71 recently for enough cooked crab (legs and body, in the shell) for two people, served it with leftover spaghetti and a salad and we felt like we had enjoyed a special-occasion meal.
May 16, 2012 4:09PM
It hasn't killed me yet.  I will buy the specials and freeze it.  I also love leftovers.  :-)
Mar 12, 2012 10:49AM
I almost always look for the reduced for quick sale meats, or just get what ever meats are on sale. I do a lot of the cooking in the family and my "list" contains mostly staples that we have used up in the last week to replace if they are on sae or cheap enough or we mush have them for some reason. I have been doing this for years, also buy large cuts like roasts with intent for left overs to make in to meals for seveal days.
Mar 10, 2012 3:01AM
Sad I buy cheap chuck steaks and cook it myself for a whooping 5 bucks a meal or 2 . I feel like I'm getting ahead with the survival game but not really ahead I don't feel safe at all. I always look for on sale items.
Mar 21, 2012 11:06PM

A while back I figured out what the lowest possible sale price was for meat at my local stores (I'm in Massachusetts) - it was $2 per pound for boneless, $1 per pound for bone-in (including whole chickens and turkey). Save your sales flyers for 8 weeks and then compare what the highest and lowest prices are for the meat you like to buy. You will know when meat is at its lowest price (without worrying about sell by dates) and you can buy several weeks worth at once - portion it out and freeze and you're good to go until the price drops again. If you haven't already, invest in a chest or standing freezer, ours paid for itself before the end of the first year with what we saved.

Mar 19, 2012 1:19PM
It's rare I run across it, but I do always look. We don't eat tons of meat, but when I can get it from the manager's special case, and it's not all brown and gross, I'll get it, if it's a cut
I can easily use for a meal.
Mar 15, 2012 9:02AM

About a year ago I found a hand crank meat grinder for 5.00 at a rummage sale.  Since our stores won't grind meat cuts that are on sale, I do my own.  Like Donna, I am not a great meat eater (never have been), but recognize that it's needed in my diet as a protein.  So 2x a week I add meat to a meal.  Chili, yum and meatballs for my grandmother's sauce recipe.  Bring on the crock pot and I'm in heaven.


As far as marked down meats, we have an older couple who hits the store at 7 AM each morning and buys it all up.  I can't imagine they eat it all.  Maybe they have dogs or something.

Mar 12, 2012 3:36PM
@Sue: Thanks! I'm enjoying the chance to post daily.
Mar 13, 2012 3:26PM

I bowed out of buying ground beef, after learning about the "Pink Slime" as it's called ( leftover trimmings that are normally processed for cooking oils and are not for normal consumption that are treated with ammonia and then made into bricks, then added to ground meat as a filler) is used in 70% of ground meats that are produced in bulk. I bought a 4 pound roast on a Manager's Special for $4.25 total, ground it up myself, made 8 packages of ground meat ( It's only me I cook for) and am now set for almost a month.

The lowest sale price I have seen for packaged ground meat is $2.99 per pound, and to get the sale you must buy 3 pounds or more at once, for 85% lean.

Mar 15, 2012 9:44PM
Jack:  I'm right behind pepperdoo!  Don't forget the mild hot sauce.
Mar 13, 2012 3:02PM

jack, I'm coming to your place for wings;)


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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.