Barbecue on a Budget

Get the most from your grill — without your grocery budget going up in smoke

Barbecuing doesn’t have to overheat your grocery bill, and budget-friendly meals don’t have to focus on hot dogs and hamburgers. Here, some ways to enjoy the grill without blowing the food budget.

Shop the sales

Let’s start with the obvious: your grocery store or market flyer. Stores know weekly specials will bring people in to shop — especially near special events (For instance, prime rib or lobster tails may go on sale around Father’s Day or a long holiday weekend.)

After a major holiday, stores are often stuck with excess stock they need to clear out — like turkeys, which keep well in the freezer. If you’re looking for discounts for dinner that night, watch for meat that is reduced for quick sale.

Another item to comparison shop: your choice of fuel. Whether you use charcoal, pellets or propane, make sure you’re getting the best price and look for promotions when available.

If you’re looking for a new barbecue or accessories, wait for end-of-season sales. If you can hold out that long, you can snag a deal as retailers make room for winter and Christmas merchandise.

Choose less expensive cuts

If you’re willing to spare some time and effort, you can save by preparing cheaper cuts of meat. Here are some examples:

Chicken quarter legs. There’s a certain pecking order to chicken pieces, with the breasts topping the list for price. Leg quarters — which include the thigh and drumstick — are often the cheapest pieces to buy.

Chuck steak. Can’t find expensive steaks on sale? Cheaper cuts are just as flavourful, even if they aren’t as tender — but you can fix that. Just remember these three steps: choose wisely, marinade well and don’t overcook (aim for medium-rare at the most).

Ribs. Another cookout staple, and everyone has their favourite recipe. Because bones make up part of the weight — and a hefty part of the price — experts advise to look for more meat and less bone per package.

Turkey. Feed a large group for less than you think. The cheapest option is to buy it and cook it whole, either in a roasting pan or on a rotisserie. (You’ll need about 2-3 hours. For more information, see 6 ways to cook a turkey ).

Brisket. If you’ve got the time and the accessories, try a beef brisket or pork shoulder. Smoking is the best way to cook them up, according to experts, so allow for plenty of cooking time.

(For more information, see The Zoomer Report: The Recessionary Grill and’s list of inexpensive cuts of meat.)

Do some extra prep

Save some cash by doing some of the work you pay for at the store. For example, whole chickens are cheaper than the sum of their parts, and fairly easy to cut apart once you learn the technique. (The bones will make tasty homemade soup stock too.)

Prefer to work with smaller pieces? Skip the pricier boneless and skinless pieces and debone the thighs or breasts yourself.

And yes, you can apply the same principle to pork or beef. Look for roasts on sale — pound per pound, they’re often cheaper than steaks or chops. Buy a long cut and slice off steaks to your preferred thickness. (You can use the ends for a stir fry or to make your own ground meat.) Watch for pork or beef tenderloin on sale, or prime rib roasts — if you don’t mind removing the ribs.

Make your own marinades and rubs

They’re an easy way to add flavour to meat, vegetables and grilled fruits — but you don’t need to pay gourmet prices. Many of the ingredients are inexpensive and readily available at grocery stores or bulk food stores.

Another bonus: you control the salt, fat and sugar. Rubs are a healthy way to cut calories and fat. Marinades are a mainstay for tenderizing meat, but they can also cut down the cancer-causing chemicals produced when grilling. (See The Zoomer Report: Safer Grilling for details.)

You don’t need a “secret recipe” — there are plenty of choices online. Some sources to try: BBQ Sauce, Marinades, and Rubs Marinade and Rub Recipes Marinades and Rubs Grillout

Rub mixes also make great gifts — especially for hard-to-shop-for hosts and hostesses.

Mix it up

Scant portions may leave your guests wanting, but when we have food served in strips or cubes, we think we’re getting more. Fill up the plate with other tasty fare and dial down the portions of the most expensive ingredients.

Mixed dishes offer plenty of flavour and healthy ingredients like whole grains and vegetables. For instance, bring in some seasonal, local vegetables like zucchini, peppers, eggplant, tomatoes and onion to make kebabs or skewers. Top a meal-sized salad, barbegued flatbread or pizza with sizzling strips from the grill, or use them to stuff pitas or make your own fajitas.

Also, by thinly slicing the meat, you can use less expensive cuts of meat like flank steak, skirt steak, and hanger steak. Since these cuts aren’t as tender, they’ll benefit from being thinly sliced — against the grain, of course.

Store it properly

One of the biggest grocery budget-busters in Canada is food we throw out. If you’re planning to stock up when there’s a special — or want to make the most of every scrap you cook — it pays to store meat properly in the fridge or freezer.

It’s best to buy meat as close to the time you plan to cook it as possible, but it can survive a few days in the fridge. However, those wrapped packages you pick up at the super market aren’t ideal for long-term freezer use. Instead, use freezer paper, zipper-top freezer bags or wrap meat in plastic wrap and foil to help prevent freezer burn by keeping air out. Vacuum packed meats can go in the freezer as-is, and you can even purchase a food saver unit to create your own airtight packages. (For best results, freeze meat as soon as possible — don’t let it linger in the fridge for a while first.)

Once your frozen meat has been thawed, it shouldn’t go back in the freezer — but you can freeze cooked meat for later use in casseroles and soups. (For more details on freezing foods, see the USDA’s fact sheet on Freezing and Food Safety.)

Ask questions

A final word of advice: when in doubt, ask. Going for less expensive options doesn’t mean you should sacrifice quality. Talk to the clerk, meat cutter or meat manager at the grocery store or your butcher about the best way to select, store and cook meats. (Alternatively, pick up a guide or cookbook to keep on hand as a reference.)

Few things will stop true barbecue enthusiasts — and money shouldn’t be one of them. These budget-friendly tips can help you make the most of your grill this year, whether you’re cooking at home or planning a picnic at the local park.