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Clean Pantry

9 Budget-Friendly Proteins (That Aren’t Beans)

Amp up lean, clean protein in your diet, without busting the bank.

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High-protein diets support an endless amount of vital bodily functions all while keeping you energized, satiated, and a lean fat-burning machine. In our course, High-Protein Meals for Energy & Fat Loss on Outside LEARN, we’ll build on your existing culinary skills with fresh ideas for eating lean and energizing meals that taste amazing and profoundly nourish your body.

Try these 9 budget-friendly protein options. Each one is packed with protein and other nutrients, and is easy on the wallet.

1. Quinoa

This super grain is actually a seed, which accounts for its robust protein profile–8 grams in a one cup serving, plus antioxidants and lots of fiber. And it’s gluten-free, lower in carbs and allowed on most Paleo diets. Organic varieties start at $6 a pound, with conventional quinoa hovering around $3 a pound. Other protein-rich, affordable grains: wheat berries, millet, oatmeal and wild rice.

Per serving: 8 grams of budget protein = $0.89 for organic quinoa.

2. Tofu

One of the most budget-friendly (and versatile) plant-based proteins: a 3-ounce  serving of tofu weighs in at 9 grams of protein. And it’s a great source of magnesium, copper, zinc and calcium; firm and extra-firm varieties made with calcium sulfate are the highest. At a little over $2 a pound for organic versions, it’s a screaming deal. In the same family, tempeh’s more expensive at around $8 a pound, but even richer in protein, with 18 grams per 3-ounce serving—still a wildly affordable protein option.

Per serving: 9 grams of budget protein = $0.42 for organic tofu. 

3. Whey protein powder

This concentrated, easily absorbed protein contains a massive 25 grams in a one-scoop serving. And whey is a high-quality complete protein, with all the essential amino acids. Conventional varieties run as low as $9 a pound; organic and/or grass-fed versions are pricier—about $25 a pound—but preferable, and well worth it. For vegan or dairy-free diets, plant-based pea and rice protein powders are less costly, protein-rich alternatives, with a respectable 20 grams per serving.  

Per serving: 25 grams of budget protein = $1.54 for organic, grass-fed whey protein.

4. Almonds

Loaded with nutrients—magnesium, vitamin E, monounsaturated fats, fiber—almonds are also a great source of protein, with 6 grams in every 1/4 cup serving. conventional varieties average around $6 a pound; you’ll find organic versions (a better option) for about $12 a pound. Other protein-centric, reasonably priced nuts: peanuts, cashews and walnuts—also high in healthy omega-3 fats.

Per serving: 6 grams of budget protein = $0.79 for organic almonds.

5. Pumpkin seeds

For nut-free diets: pumpkin seeds are an excellent plant-based protein option. One 1/4 cup serving has 9 grams of protein, and an array of important nutrients, including magnesium, zinc, vitamin E and vitamin K. And they’re more affordable than most nuts; organic varieties run around $7 a pound. Other protein-rich, budget-friendly seeds: chia, sunflower and flax seeds have about the same protein content and similar nutrients.

Per serving: 9 grams of budget protein = $0.43 for organic pumpkin seeds.

6. Parmesan cheese

This hard, flavorful cheese (properly known as Parmigiano Reggiano) has more protein than any other cheese—10 grams per 1/4 cup serving. It’s also an extremely rich source of calcium, with 25 percent of the daily value in a single serving. Conventional Parmesan averages about $5 a pound; you can find organic versions (preferable) starting as low as $15 a pound. More cheesy choices: Romano, Swiss, cheddar and Gruyere are also packed with protein, plus calcium.

Per serving: 10 grams of budget protein = $0.93 for organic Parmesan cheese.

7. Peanut butter

Our favorite sandwich spread is surprisingly high in protein; a 2 tablespoon serving of peanut butter weighs in at 8 grams of protein (and it’s rich in other nutrients like healthy monounsaturated fats, magnesium, zinc and B vitamins). And peanut butter is affordable for any budget: organic varieties average around $4 a pound. If peanuts aren’t on your menu, almond butter is an excellent alternative, with a similar protein count and nutritional profile.

Per serving: 8 grams of budget protein = $0.28 for organic peanut butter.

8. Cottage cheese

It’s the new Greek yogurt, with a range of nutrients (calcium, selenium, B vitamins) and more protein per gram than yogurt. Low-fat cottage cheese has 13 grams of protein in a 1/2 cup serving; full-fat versions have slightly less, with 12 grams per serving. It’s as versatile as yogurt, and affordable—organic varieties average about $3.50 a pound. And if you’re looking for probiotics, you’ll find cultured cottage cheese rich in the same beneficial bacteria as yogurt; check package labels for live and active cultures.

Per serving: 13 grams of budget protein = $0.87 for low-fat organic cottage cheese.

9. Sardines

More sustainable than other fish—and loads cheaper—sardines are low in mercury and rich in protein: a 3-ounce serving boasts an impressive 18 grams, with a nutrient lineup (EPA and DHA omega-3 fats, selenium, B vitamins) that’s similar to salmon. Boneless, skinless varieties are as versatile as tuna, and not a lot more expensive; wild-caught, sustainable selections cost about $3 a can. Or buy bone-in versions for extra calcium—usually around 15 percent of the daily value per serving.

Per serving: 18 grams of budget protein = $2.06 for wild-caught, sustainable sardines.

For more protein-packed content, keep reading:

 Featured recipe: Spicy Peanut Tofu Noodle Salad