Let’s start with meats, and a term we’ve likely all heard when it comes to picking a product: the USDA “grade.” Ever wondered about it?
For beef, USDA graders consider the quality of cuts in terms of marbled fat—that fat found between muscle/meat fibers rather than wrapping a cut—that provide tenderness, juiciness and flavor. They also factor in how much lean meat a cut will yield. The highest-level cuts get a “prime” grade, followed by “choice” and then “select.” You might also encounter in the grocery store “standard” or “commercial” cuts, the next two steps down the grading scale.
Veal and lamb use the same grading system as beef but different terminology, swapping in the “good” grade in place of “select.”
USDA does not grade pork, though the agency does inspect pork products for quality.
You’ll pay more per pound for higher grades of meat, in general. But, the good news is that proper cooking and carving of leaner “select” and “choice” cuts can produce tender, juicy and flavorful meals, as well.
The grade of meat has nothing to do with its nutritional value. And, meats contain a range of nutrients, including protein, thiamin, niacin, iron and zinc. The fat content, of course, can vary widely.
While the fat in our meats is what makes the meat more tender, juicy and flavorful, many of us are watching our fat intake. To keep fat levels in check, select well-trimmed meats, meaning about 1/8 of an inch fat or less. “Trim” refers to the fat layer surrounding or wrapping a cut of meat. You can carve away excess bits of this fat, something you can’t do with marbled fat. Cooking will remove some of the marbled fat, though.
When shopping for beef that is lower in fat, look for cuts such as “round” or “loin” in the name, like eye of round, top round steak, sirloin steak, top loin steak, flank steak, and tenderloin steak.
If purchasing pork or lamb, look for “loin” or “leg” products. Leaner pork cuts include tenderloin, loin roast, center loin chop and sirloin roast, while leaner lamb selections include leg of lamb, loin chop and foreshanks.
In the meat aisle, while you’re scanning the labels for type, cut and grade of meat, take some time to check out other items on that label. You’ll find the net weight and cost per package, of course. But you’ll also find the “unit price,” such as the price per pound. That will help you determine the best value for your budget.
Another thing to keep in mind is portion size. Buy enough meat without overdoing portion size. A moderate portion size is 3 ounces of cooked meat or 4 ounces uncooked and boneless. For some meats, you will need to take into account the bone and fat. Just keep in mind that a serving size should NOT take up half your plate!
Over at the deli case, packaged items like hot dogs, luncheon meats and sausages must carry a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “Nutrition Facts” label. That label will help you select meats with less fat and lower sodium levels, among other dietary issues.
As we mentioned in an earlier blog, when buying cheese, make sure the packaging is sealed well. That will help ensure you receive a fresh product, free of contaminants.
Whether you are adding deli meats or cheese to your cart, pay heed to the “use by” or “sell by” date on the package. And read the sentence on the package that states how many days you have to safely consume the product once you’ve opened its packaging.
NEXT: The fish counter.