What to Look for When Buying Meat

What to Look for When Buying Meat

You probably already know that meat, chicken, and fish are some of the best sources of complete protein, and kudos to you for always keeping them stocked. But do you really know what to look for when buying meat, or are you just picking up a random package that sort of looks good?

As the prime companions to your muscle-building diet, you’ll want to choose the freshest proteins possible and understand which cuts work for which cooking methods to maximize their nutritional (and taste) benefits. Knowing what to look for when you’re purchasing meat can make the difference between a lackluster meal and one that rivals your favorite restaurant.

That’s exactly why BarBend has teamed up with ButcherBox — who are dedicated to shipping the highest-quality meats and seafood right to your door — to give you the lowdown on what to look for when buying steak, chicken, and fish.


The search for high-quality meat ends here, thanks to ButcherBox. Amazing taste. Humanely raised. Delivered to your door. And as a BarBend reader, sign up today and get two packs of bacon for free in every order for the first year of your membership.

What to Look for When Buying Steak

Prepping ultra-savory steak starts with buying the right cut and looking out for quality. To take the guesswork out of buying good steak, check out these smart shopping tips below before shelling out big bucks on a ribeye.

Understand the Different USDA Grades

First off, you’ll want to check the steak’s packaging for its USDA grade. There are three symbols — Prime, Choice, and Select — and they each give you insight into how lean, tender, juicy, and flavorful your cut will be… so you don’t have to wait to slice into it to really know. Here’s what each USDA grade shield means:

USDA Prime: This type comes from young, well-fed cattle, so it’s the fattiest of the bunch. USDA Prime steak has lots of marbling, making it extra juicy and flavorful. However, that also means it’s not very lean. Prime steaks are great for grilling, roasting, or broiling.

USDA Choice: A good compromise between fattiness and flavor, Choice has less marbling than Prime (so it’s a bit leaner) but is still of good quality. For extra tenderness and flavor, aim to buy Choice beef that comes from the cow’s loin and rib — and you can cook them just like any Prime steak. Other Choice steaks are great for braising, roasting, or simmering with a bit of liquid in a covered pan.

USDA Select: The leanest of the bunch, Select gives you the most bang for your protein buck. But because it barely contains any marbling, you won’t get much juiciness or flavor out of a Select steak but marinating your steak before cooking or braising it can help infuse it with more richness.

Look for the Right Color

The old adage, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” certainly doesn’t apply to meat. In fact, you most definitely should judge a steak by its color. A top-tier steak has a vibrant cherry-red color, indicating freshness. But don’t be alarmed by purplish-hued meat — if it’s in a vacuum-sealed package, this color meat is very much fresh and signifies it hasn’t come in contact with much oxygen.

But what happens when your perfectly bright-red steak turns a bit brown in the fridge? Don’t fret: According to the USDA, this change of color is chalked up to oxidation and is totally normal.

However, you’ll want to avoid meat that’s discolored with any green or yellow. Even a brown color can be dangerous if it’s also accompanied by an off odor. And steer clear of steak that has developed a slimy film, as that’s another tell-tale sign of spoilage.

Know the Different Cuts

One of the most important factors in choosing steak is understanding the different cuts. You’ll want to choose a cut based on your recipe or what you’re in the mood for, as certain cuts are more suitable for throwing on the grill, while others are better incorporated into a stew. Here are five different types of popular cuts and how to cook them to perfection:

  • T-bone: A T-bone steak is basically a smaller porterhouse, and it’s one of the most tender and flavorful cuts you can get. It’s made up of strip steak and tenderloin, connected by a T-shaped bone. This rich cut is best cooked on the grill, under the broiler, or in a heavy skillet like cast iron.
  • Ribeye: Another winning cut, the ribeye (which, unsurprisingly, comes from the rib area of the animal) is well-marbled and tender. Just like a T-bone or porterhouse, you’ll want to grill, broil, or skillet-cook your ribeye.
  • Sirloin: This cut is neither super tender nor tough, but it has good flavor without much fat. It’s also quick-cooking, especially if you cube it into kabobs or into a stir-fry. Just make sure not to overcook this steak — medium rare is ideal! — to avoid tough, chewy meat.
  • Flank steak: The flank steak comes from the bottom middle of the cow and is a little leaner than skirt steak, but still very flavorful. Letting this cut sit in a marinade for a few hours before grilling, broiling, braising, or stir-frying can help tenderize the meat.
  • Chuck steak: A chuck steak comes from the shoulder of the cow and has a strong beefy flavor. While some chuck roasts only become tender after slow-cooking for hours, more marbled chuck steaks are ideal for grilling and broiling.

Try It

Image: ButcherBox

This mouthwatering recipe for Flank Steak with Slow-Roasted Tomato Pasta Salad has you marinating the meat in a mixture of mustard, chives, and olive oil for a delicious, fork-tender result. Pair it with a pasta salad that’s studded with blistered tomatoes and tossed with a thyme and garlic vinaigrette for a restaurant-worthy homemade meal.

What to Look For When Buying Chicken

Chicken is a versatile (and relatively inexpensive) source of protein that makes for quick, easy meals when you’re in a pinch. Whether you opt for lean breasts or juicy thighs, you’ll want to keep these poultry-shopping tips in mind.

Look for Free-Range

Free-range chicken is more expensive than conventionally-grown poultry, but it’s worth the higher price tag. Instead of being cooped up in cages or crates, free-range chickens have seasonal access to roaming outside. And that usually translates to higher quality meat: A study in the Asian-Australasian Journal of Animal Sciences found that free-range hens were lower in fat but higher in protein (including skin-supporting collagen) and had a better texture. (1)

Make Sure It’s Free From Antibiotics and Hormones

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t allow farmers to raise their chickens with “steroid hormones,” so you can rest assured that any package of poultry you buy in the U.S. is hormone-free.

But antibiotics are a bit more of a gray area. Misusing antibiotics in chickens (and other common animal products) can contribute to antibiotic resistance, a major threat to human health. But farmers are only allowed to use antibiotics to treat sick chickens, which, FYI, is the ethical thing to do.


The search for high-quality meat ends here, thanks to ButcherBox. Amazing taste. Humanely raised. Delivered to your door. And as a BarBend reader, sign up today and get two packs of bacon for free in every order for the first year of your membership.

So if you see a label that reads something along the lines of, “Raised without Antibiotics,” that just means that the chicken was never sick and never administered antibiotics to help fight off the disease. Bonus points if your chicken package also bears the USDA organic label, which means the farm was inspected and the label is verified.

Color and Liquid

Fresh poultry should be pink and plump without any funky smells. You’ll also want to take a look at how much liquid is in the package. Chicken is usually treated with water before being packaged, so the meat ends up dispelling this water. But if there’s a pool of water in your package, that usually means the poultry will be soggy and tasteless.

Always look for a package with minimal liquid to ensure your chicken tastes the way it should (because no one needs a breast that’s blander than it already is).

Try It

Image: ButcherBox

These Trinidadian Buccaneer Chicken Thighs are marinated with an ultra-flavorful green seasoning jam-packed with herbs and spices such as parsley and chives as well as dark brown sugar, which helps caramelize the chicken on the barbie. Try serving your protein alongside herbed rice and grilled vegetables for a balanced meal that’s perfect post-workout.

What to Look For When Buying Fish

The American Heart Association recommends eating two servings (each coming in at three ounces cooked) of fatty fish per week to take advantage of the heart-healthy omega-3s. This includes salmon, anchovies, sardines, black cod, and herring. But before you stock up, make sure you choose the freshest fish possible with these helpful tips.

Wild-Caught vs. Farm-Raised Fish

Wild-caught fish are sourced from the ocean, lakes, rivers (and other bodies of water), while farm-raised fish are hatched and grown in large pools. Wild fish is often touted for being more nutritious as it’s lower in fat and higher in protein because the fish eat their natural diet and have more room to stay active and swim around.

Image: ButcherBox

But farmed fish, if raised sustainably and responsibly, can also be a good choice. Always check your fish’s labels for certifications that give you insight into how the fish was caught and raised.

Check the Color

If you’re buying whole fish, take a good look at the eyes as they exhibit some of the first signs of spoilage. Choose fish with clear — not cloudy — eyes. As for fillets, always scan for any brown spots or discoloration. Fresh salmon should be bright pink or deep red (depending on the species of salmon and how it was raised).

You’ll also want to look at the edges of your fillets and ensure they’re not drying out or changing color, which are early signs of spoilage.

Try the Sniff Test

There’s a difference between fish that smells like the ocean and fillets that smell straight-up rancid. To tell the difference, sniff it out. If your whole fish or fillets smell super fishy or like ammonia, steer clear. A faint, ocean-like smell is a sign your fish is fresh and safe to eat.

Try It

Image: ButcherBox

Shake up your weeknight dinner routine with this scrumptious Gochujang-Glazed Salmon with Quick-Pickled Cucumbers. The salmon is smothered with chili-based gochujang (a Korean dressing), soy sauce, and maple syrup before it’s broiled and paired with bright pickled cucumbers that bring the zest.

Always Go for Quality

With a subscription to ButcherBox, you’ll receive 100% grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, and wild-caught seafood delivered right to your door, and it’s completely tailored to your schedule. From flank steaks and sirloins to fresh salmon and juicy chicken breast, ButcherBox offers a range of different options for every taste. And now that you know what you’re looking for, head to the ButcherBox website to get these high-quality meats now.


  1. Lin CY, Kuo HY, Wan TC. Effect of Free-range Rearing on Meat Composition, Physical Properties and Sensory Evaluation in Taiwan Game Hens. Asian-Australas J Anim Sci. 2014 Jun;27(6):880-5. doi: 10.5713/ajas.2013.13646. PMID: 25050027; PMCID: PMC4093180.

Featured Image: YARUNIV Studio

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What to Look for When Buying Meat

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