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How to keep this summer's meat budget in check

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Unless you reside under a rock or do zero grocery shopping, you're well aware of the rapid price increases we've been experiencing at the checkout register. It seems as if everything has doubled in price compared to last year and the sticker shock suffered at the meat counter is almost unbearable.

After successfully surviving one of the most brutal winters in recent memory, the summer grilling season was greatly anticipated and long overdue. Not to be denied, one has to wonder if refinancing the house is necessary prior to firing up the grill. So what's behind these high meat prices?

Calamities have affected both the pork and beef industry. Recent droughts have adversely affected the nation's cattle supply while the pork industry has been devastated by a new pig virus, Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea or PED. Neither problem is going away anytime soon and will result in a bigger dent in your pocketbook. For a more detailed account of the situation, read: Will surging meat prices extinguish the barbecue flames?

Does that mean the barbecue season is over before it even started? Hell no! There are ways to beat this. The following tips will get you through the rough times, just be sure to buy plenty of charcoal and fill up those propane tanks. We're not going down without a fight.

Efficient Purchasing : Despite higher costs, meat will still go on sale. Keep your eyes open for them and stock up. Don't forget the savings offered by coupons. This year's grilling options may very well come down to meat that was priced right rather than meat that might have been your first choice.

Alternate Cuts of Meat : The time has come to experiment with other cuts of meat. Walk away from the expensive T-bones or sirloins and take a look instead at brisket, beef back ribs or a pork butt. While these tougher cuts of meat require a bit more preparation and longer cooking times, they are just as delicious and can still be had at incredible savings. Give flank steak a try.

Bulk Buying : Warehouse stores such as Sam's Club and Costco typically offer larger quantity purchasing at affordable prices. Stock up and fill the freezer. If budget or freezer space is a concern, go in with a friend. On the same note, investigate the purchase of a whole or partial animal. They are broken down into individual cuts and offer substantial savings.

Forgo Beef and Pork : This may be a year when pork and beef are an occasional treat while the majority of grilled meals consist of turkey, chicken, fish or seafood. Poultry prices are expected to remain stable throughout the summer, as does fish and seafood. Often ignored due to its usually high price is lobster. Take a second look. Lobster is at an all time low. Get creative with ground turkey rather than ground beef. If in doubt, try this Tex-Mex turkey bean burger recipe. It's guaranteed to be one the the better burgers you've ever had.

Menu Planning : It doesn't look as if this is the year for monster-sized steaks. Smaller portions with more side dishes can equal big savings. We don't necessarily have to do without, maybe just less. More appetizers are always welcome and help fill the belly. It might just be that one burger per person will suffice. What ever happened to kabobs? You don't see them much anymore, despite the fact that one steak could easily feed two people if efficiently stuffed on a stick with plenty of vegetables.

Where food prices will go this summer is uncertain. What is certain is pork and beef prices are on the rise. Unfortunately this is happening just as the nation's grilling season is about to get underway. Yet, with a little extra effort, we can keep those barbecue fires burning without breaking the bank. I'll see you at the grill.

Take a look at the recipe suggestions below. They're all crowd pleasers and use reasonably priced cuts of meat.

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