A New Way to Think About Meat

(photo: Shutterstock image)

I was at the grocery store this weekend, and as I put a package of ground meat in my cart, I had a spasm of guilt about it.

This happens occasionally. For years I was a vegetarian, a choice made in large part out of concern for cruelty to animals. I eventually went back to eating meat, partially because I realized that "vegetarian" products like cheese and eggs and milk contribute to animal suffering too; unless I was prepared to adopt a strictly vegan diet, I wasn't doing as much as I had thought to help animals. Also, I became more comfortable with the ethics of eating lower life forms. (Jonah Goldberg explains it better than I could when he says that "when chickens give to charity, I will stop eating them.") My vegetarianism had flowed from my atheistic belief system, and when I gained a new understanding of the relative roles of humans and animals in the grand scheme of things, I gained peace about the idea of the raising and slaughtering of animals for use as a human food source, as long as it was done humanely.

But I still have pangs of guilt about those packages of cheap meat at the grocery store.

I love the idea of buying grass-fed beef from cows raised on family-owned local farms; same thing for chicken, pork, and any other meat. It would be better for my family's health, and it would ease my conscience to know that at least these animals weren't shuttled through a mass-production meat factory. My grocery store has even begun stocking beef and chicken products that have most if not all of these characteristics, and there are plenty of organic food delivery companies that serve my area, so it would be easier than ever to make the switch. Why on earth haven't I done it, then?

The short answer is that it's too expensive.

The long answer is that I've developed an entitled attitude about eating meat.

When I plan our family's meals each week, I always start with the question of what we want to eat. To keep our grocery budget under control we buy in bulk, favor generic brands, watch out for discounts, and avoid delicacies. Outside of those few concessions, though, there's a sense of entitlement in which I feel like I should be able to eat what I want, especially when it comes to meat. If I'm in the mood for hamburgers, hamburgers go on the menu. If that crock pot chicken recipe seems like the best fit for my cooking schedule on a certain day, that's what I plan for dinner. Having grown up amidst the staggering abundance of middle-class America, I've come to think of meat as a staple.

But what if I began to think of meat as a delicacy?

There have been plenty of times and places when eating meat was a privilege. A woman might buy a couple of pounds of beef or chicken at the market, then plan on having that last her family for the entire week. This requires a level of planning and creativity that many modern Americans aren't used to putting into our weekly menus. It means poring over the recipe book to find just the right casseroles or stews to stretch the meat budget by adding bulk to meals through less-expensive foods like vegetables or starches. It means branching out and eating all different parts of an animal in order to make sure none goes to waste. It means re-thinking portion sizes and taking a hard look at how much the average person really needs to eat, perhaps embracing the ancient tradition of the occasional fast. It means eating fewer animal products and and appreciating them more.

In 1910, two pounds of beef cost about $0.40, which was roughly 3 percent of the typical American's weekly salary. At my grocery store today, I can get two pounds of beef for $4, which is only 0.4 percent of the typical modern American's weekly salary. Interestingly, if I were to buy the specialty grass-fed beef that was farm-raised and slaughtered outside of a factory setting, two pounds would set me back $18 -- or, 2 percent of an average weekly salary. Eighteen dollars for a couple of pounds of beef has always seemed outrageous to me...but perhaps that's because I've come to take for granted the price points that are only available through mass production meat factories.

I went ahead and bought that cheap ground beef I put in my cart the other day, and I made a delicious chili with it too. I can't promise that I won't buy factory-produced meat ever again; I'll probably even buy it again next week, and the week after that, since revamping the menu planning system for a family of seven is no small task. But I'm encouraged to realize that it's possible to stay on budget and buy products from animals that are ethically raised, if you're willing to completely reevaluate your attitude toward meat.