Last year, beef and pork prices were up an average of 6%, hitting carnivores' wallets hard every time they were at the grocery store. With wholesale meat prices already up 25% more than last year, the USDA is now warning consumers that this year's increases could be even worse.

Bacon is the cut that's most in danger -- prices for 50% lean pork bellies, the raw material for the best bacon, are up a whopping 64% from last year at this time, to $1.44 per pound. Until last year, the price of pork bellies had never gone above $1 a pound. Now, thanks to high corn prices, prices are rising alarmingly. Just two weeks ago, $1.23-per-pound pork bellies had the USDA predicting beef prices would be up 5.5% this year; they're now predicting a 6% or 7% increase.

With all this depressing news about the protein most Americans count on to center their meals around, how can WalletPop readers still eat frugally? I can think of lots of ways:1. Buy grass-fed beef in bulk. It means you'll have to budget ahead of time -- which can be hard for many families -- but it's such a relief to have the freezer packed with good beef whose price can't change. Grass-fed beef can be more expensive than corn-fed, but it's not as dependent on grain prices; after all, the cows eat mostly what's growing for free. A friend of mine coordinated a group buy of beef for less than $3 a pound that included not just ground beef and roasts, but also sirloin and tenderloin steaks. Depending on your standards (some breeds of cattle, for instance, are far more expensive), you could pay as much as $7 per pound, which isn't much of a bargain, but the quality is amazing (so my friends tell me) and the price is locked in.

2. Haunt butcher stores and farmer's markets for "ends" and cheaper cuts. Every time I walk up to my favorite pork vendor at the Portland Farmer's Market -- Sweet Briar Farm -- I'm greeted with the status of the bacon ends that day. If there are lots, I get a glowing smile; if they're all out, it's an apologetic frown. At $4 a pound, the ends are way cheaper than good $8-a-pound, sustainably raised pork bacon, and it's just as delicious (and already cut in sweet bite-sized pieces so my little boys feel like there's more to go around). The beef vendors will often put the roasts and stew meat up for a buy-one-get-one-free sale. It's super high-quality meat at less than $3 per pound, and all I have to do is cook it slow.

3. Make meat the star of a meal, but don't let it hog the spotlight. Some food writers call the way Asian cultures approach meat to be more like a "condiment" -- using salted and cured meats to flavor dishes centered mainly around vegetables, grains or beans. I like to think of meat as the star but one that's part of a talented ensemble cast. So my chili has equal parts beef, diced carrots and finely-chopped red cabbage; my pasta sauce is heavy on the sweet onions, carrots and tomatoes along with that great ground pork. Even when we have steak or pork roast, it's augmented with sauteed mushrooms, creamed greens or carrot-cabbage slaw. If you can keep meat to 25% or so of the bulk of your main dish, you can keep high prices from destroying your grocery budget.

4. Stay away from "value-added" meats. Food processing companies love the concept of adding "value" to your food when they're actually just adding cost (and often, chemical preservatives and unhealthy additives). Yes, the meatballs or tiny sausage links might be quick to throw in the microwave, but the high cost to your wallet and your health isn't worth the time savings (which is questionable at best). So-called "quick-prep" or "meal-helpers" have been shown to save very little time at a pretty outrageous cost -- $50 to $80 an hour. Stick with plain, unvarnished, no-value-added meats and you'll end up with true value and quality (and more money left for dessert).

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