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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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:

The best proteins for every diet

Here’s how much protein you need in a day

The best vegetarian sources of protein