In the last few years, I’ve become that person who has a chest freezer full of meat, fish, and poultry. I frequently am asked by friends, family and acquaintances about buying meat in bulk, and I’ve compiled all the answers to those questions right here.
Your Guide to Buying Meat in Bulk
The majority of these questions are intended for purchasing a ‘side’ or ‘share’ of beef, pork, or lamb. That means you are buying anywhere from a quarter to a whole animal. However, there are alternatives to buying a side as well as ways to purchase bulk fish and poultry. I cover it all in the questions below!
What are the benefits of buying meat in bulk?
The most common reason for buying meat in bulk is that it allows you to purchase meat at a lower price than you would pay when purchasing individual cuts at the grocery story. I find that I can buy higher quality meat and receive ‘fancier’ cuts for the same price as ‘regular’ meat purchased at the grocery store. For us, that means 100% grass-fed* or pastured as well as humanely raised.
Not only is my family consuming better meat, but our money is supporting more conscientious farmers who practice sustainable and humane farming. I’m a big fan of voting with my money and I prefer, when possible, to not support CAFO (feed lot) meat. Not all bulk meat is raised humanely and sustainably, but you can ask specific questions of your farmer to make sure you are supporting practices with which you are comfortable (see below for those questions).
You’e also supporting eating the whole animal. The cuts you see in grocery stores are just fractions of the animal, but buying animal shares is a good start to using more of the animal and eating sustainably.
Another benefit that isn’t often mentioned but is one of my favorites is that investing in bulk meat saves me time on a weekly basis. Because my freezer is packed with protein, I don’t have to shop for it and my shopping trips are mostly for just veggies and a few staples. I also have a finite list of protein options to meal plan with, which makes things go more quickly.
*Curious why grass fed matters? My friend and colleague Noelle Tarr wrote a great post about the grass-fed difference.
How do I know if buying bulk meat makes sense for my family?
Besides the obvious reasons why it might not be right for you (like you are a vegan or vegetarian family), here are a few questions to ask yourself before deciding to purchase meat in bulk:
- Does our family enjoy cooking and eating home made meals?
- Does our family include animal proteins in our meals several times per week?
- Is our family happy to eat a variety of cuts of meat? Do I enjoy cooking a variety of cuts of meat?
If you answered yes to all of these, there’s good reason to believe buying meat in bulk will be cost and time saving for your family, and may help you improve the quality of the meat you’re currently eating without increasing spending.
What do I need to buy meat in bulk?
To start buying shares of an animal, you need two things: the upfront investment and space to store the meat.
The investment is really going to depend on where you live and it varies so wildly that it’s hard to give even an estimate of the cost. What my friend who lives in Montana pays for quality bulk meat is a fraction of what I pay in metro Seattle. And what I pay now is less than when I lived in San Francisco. You can expect to pay a deposit to reserve your side and the remainder at the time your meat is ready.
The amount of space required depends on how much meat you are purchasing. I have a 7 cubic foot chest freezer and I purchase 1/4 cow and 1/2 pig annually. This leaves just a little room for extra storage right at the time of delivery. While I purchased mine new at Home Depot, many friends have found great deals on Craigslist or other local markets for used goods.
Are there hidden costs I should be aware of when buying a side of meat?
I find that a good source of quality meat will be upfront about total costs. When inquiring about purchasing meat in bulk, you should ask about total costs to make sure you fully understand, but here’s what you can expect:
- Most sides of meat are priced by hanging weight, or the weight of the animal before butchering into cuts. The farmer will have a set price, let’s say $4 per pound hanging weight. If the hanging weight of a 1/4 side of cow is 150 pounds, you will owe the farmer $600.
- Final weight, what you take home in pounds to eat, is less than hanging weight. In very general terms, you can expect that total weight of a cow is about 65% of the hanging weight and for a pig you get about 75% of hanging weight. These are super general numbers as it depends on breed and the animal itself. What’s important to know is that the hanging weight cost is a little lower price per pound that what you will pay for your final weight.
Other expenses you may incur include:
- A fee for harvesting and/or cutting or wrapping. Some include this in the price above, some add another $1 per pound or so, some have you directly pay the butcher for the cutting and wrapping.
- For pork, cured or seasoned meats (bacon, sausage) are typically another $.50 to $1.00 per pound.
- Depending on how the farmer’s process works, there may be a delivery fee if the meat is delivered to you rather than picking up on the farm.
How much meat should I order?
This is really up to you and your family. Each year I order 1/4 cow and 1/2 pig, and we eat fish, some chicken, and a little lamb as well throughout the year. This order lasts us pretty much exactly a year. We are a protein-happy family, meaning that I do serve it at nearly every meal. However, we do eat out our fair share (maybe two dinners per week, sometimes three if things are really busy).
I haven’t been able to find a good resource that states how much meat is a good amount per family size, but it’s a great question to ask a farmer you are considering buying from. If you’re really not sure, start with the smallest offering and see how long it lasts you. Adjust the next year.
My general rule is to order what we can eat in a year. There are varying answers as to how long meat lasts in the freezer, but I like to use mine within a year. With two adults and a toddler, I’m still keeping to our same order for 2017. But in the future I imagine we’ll need order more as the kids get older and eat more.
The amount of meat varies by year based on the individual animals, but here’s a breakdown of what we received for 2016. When you are getting a portion of an animal, there are other families getting the other portions. Not everything can be split evenly. You’ll notice that this year in our beef order we did not get a brisket, but in years past we have.
- 3 sirloin steaks, 3 sirloin tip steaks, 3 t-bone steaks, 3 rib steaks, 1 tenderloin steak, 1 tri tip steak
- 3 chuck roasts, 1 rump roast, 1 arm roast, 1 top round roast, 1 bottom round steak roast
- 3 1.5 lb packages of short ribs
- 4 lbs stew meat
- 30 lbs of ground beef
- 6 lbs soup bones
- 5 shoulder roasts, 2 ham roasts
- 5 pork steaks
- 1 package spare ribs
- 17 packages of pork chops @ 2 per package
- 12 lbs ground pork (I choose not to have mine made into sausage)
- 8 lbs bacon
Where do I find quality bulk meat?
Eatwild.org is a great resource for finding farmers local to you.
Browse your local farmers market and talk to any farms that bring animal products and ask if they sell sides of meat.
Ask local friends whom you know order meat in bulk. We’re weird and we love to talk about our meat sources! Seriously.
What questions should I ask the farmer?
Once you find a farmer from whom you want to purchase meat, here are a few questions you might want to ask. You certainly don’t need to ask them all if you’re not concerned about something.
Quality: How are the animals fed – is beef and lamb 100% grass-fed and pork pastured? What are the animals fed? What steps do they take for sustainability? How are the animals slaughtered?
Cost: Is the cost per pound hanging or final weight? What is the typical final weight yield? Are there additional fees for harvest, cutting and wrapping, or delivery?
Logistics: Will the butcher call me to ask for my specific cut order?* Do I pick up or is there a delivery option (important to know if the farm is hours away!)? How are cuts split between orders when ordering a partial animal? Are soup bones or organ meats available? How much should I order for my family? Is meat available year round or seasonally? If seasonally, when should I expect my order?
*You may have no idea what your specific cut order is, but this is still important. You want your meat to come packaged in the way that is most usable to you. If you’re new to bulk meat, you can tell the butcher how many people you feed in an average meal and they can help walk you through the process. An example is how many pork chops to a package. I always have done two in the past, but now that my daughter is eating more, next year I’ll probably do four. Requesting your cuts allows you to defrost and cook your meats in quantities that make sense for your family.
What should I expect when my order arrives?
Your meat will be frozen upon delivery or pick-up and packaged as you discussed with the butcher. You’ll want to make sure that you have time on delivery day to get all the meat organized and stored in the freezer. I first take an inventory of what I have then store my meat in the chest freezer. I’ve described how I do both of these in the questions below.
To get an idea of how much meat you’ll receive, this is our 2015 cow share.
What’s the best way to store bulk meat?
The biggest thing to keep in mind when organizing your chest freezer is making sure that everything is accessible. My first attempt was using a system of reusable bags, and that has worked well for us so it’s what I’ve stuck with.
I start by layering all ground meats flat on the bottom of the freezer. There’s typically so much of this that to try and bag it would be a pain. Since they are uniform in size, they work pretty well as a base layer.
Then I group like items (roasts, steaks, etc.) together in a reusable bag. We had so many sitting around that I didn’t actually have to purchase anything for this, and I’ve just used the same ones year after year.
I add the bags to the freezer in whatever way makes everything fit. We also have a side basket on our freezer so I’ll usually pick one thing (for no good reason, it’s pork chops right now) to store in that bin.
Technically we have two side bins, but I like to keep one sitting on top of the freezer. I use it to carry my meat for the week from the basement (where the chest freezer is) up to the refrigerator.
The other way I’ve seen people store meat shares is in plastic bins in the freezer. I haven’t tried this so I can’t speak to how well it works.
How do I keep track of my meat?
I find that keeping track of what I have makes using our meat shares easier. I start by taking inventory when an order first arrives.
For items like roasts, I weigh them and write the weight with a sharpie right on the packing. This is helpful for when I need to feed a specific number of people or for when I’m trying a new recipe for the first time and want to follow it closely.
Then I enter everything on to a spreadsheet. I also include the bag in which the meat is being stored so I can quickly locate it when I’m selecting meat for the week.
My spreadsheet is really simple. I get it all down and then delete each item after I use it. About once or twice a year it’s outdated because I haven’t kept up with it, so I dig through the freezer and update it. This is what mine looked like at the beginning of the year. There’s no time for fancy around here these days, so I just get down the important info and move on.
How do I use all this meat?!
Great question! What I try to do is think seasonly. I use most of the roasts in crock pot meals during fall and winter, and save a lot of the steaks and chops for grilling during the summer.
I use my good friend Google when I end up with a cut that I’m unfamiliar with, like this year’s arm roast. I can usually find a recipe pretty quickly that meats our dietary needs and sounds good.
The ground meat is pretty easy to use and because it defrosts quickly, tends to be a go-to. I usually run out of ground meat first, then roasts, then steaks. Thirty pounds of ground meat may sound like a lot, but that’s just a little over one pound every other week if you’re aiming to use your meat within a year.
My absolute favorite cookbooks are the Well Fed series (Well Fed, Well Fed 2, and preorder for Well Fed Weeknights) and I find that these books are a great mix of cuts, so perfect for using with a meat share.
Intimidated by buying meat in bulk? Find answers to all your questions about meat shares! Click To Tweet
Are there alternatives if a side of meat is not right for my family?
Yes! If you are not able to spend the money upfront or don’t have the storage space, you can still take advantage of buying high quality meat at a better price than the store. The two options that I’m aware of and have used are a meat CSA and buying bulk meat online.
A meat CSA is just like a vegetable CSA, except that it’s meat! Its typically delivered (or available for pick-up) monthly or every other month and will generally come with about 8-10 pounds of meat. Maybe 2 lbs ground, some steak, and a roast. I’ve participated in a meat CSA in both San Francisco and Seattle and both were run pretty similarly. The best way to find one that I’ve found is to google “meat CSA + your city”.
If you don’t want to or can’t commit to the CSA (which might have a one year commitment), you can order high quality meats online from several purveyors. You won’t get quite the same savings as buying shares (best savings) or a CSA (better), but you still we be able to get high quality meat for probably less than you would buy it at a store like Whole Foods or a local coop. There are many online stores for meat, but these are ones from where I’ve ordered and whose quality and humane raising of animals I trust:
I’ve also heard that Costco has grass-fed beef packages available to buy online.
Can I buy poultry and fish in bulk?
Yes! Since fish and poultry are not large animals, they are not sold as shares.
Some farms sell poultry and will have a either bulk ordering, which I don’t do because whole chickens take up a ton of space, or a CSA like option where you buy a certain number of chickens and they are delivered or ready throughout the year. I’ve done this before and it’s great for having lots of chickens for making broth. Check out eatwild.org to find one in your area. US Wellness meats also carries some poultry online.
You can buy fish in bulk online and save while buying higher quality than you may find in the grocery store. It’s not going to save you as much, but it will likely be a little cheaper than similar quality/cuts at grocery stores. I frequent:
- Loki Fish Company for salmon (local to Seattle, but also ships)
- Vital Choice for seafood and other meats and goodies (I’m a little addicted to their seaweed salad)
I think that’s *all* I have to say about buying meat in bulk! I’ve been doing it for years now and don’t see us stopping anytime soon.
Do you buy meat in bulk? Leave a tip in the comments? Did I miss a question you have? Leave it in the comments and I’ll get back to you!