Written by Beth Corcoran, Contributing Writer

Buying meat at the store can be quite confusing. On top of having to choose a proper cut of meat to suit your needs, there are many grade labels that may add to the confusion: organic, prime, choice, select, etc. However, there is one term I would like to highly encourage you to pay attention to when buying meat: grass-fed.

What is Grass-Fed Meat?

Grass-fed meat is actually a traditional food, and it is exactly what it sounds like. It is the meat from an animal that has been fed grass. This term is used especially when describing beef. (While I will be focusing on describing beef, please note that in essence, these descriptions can apply to other meat sources as well.)  Now, you may be wondering why there needs to be this distinction since we’ve been taught from childhood that cows eat grass.

What a Modern Cow Eats

Despite what you were taught in kindergarten, most cattle do not graze happily on green pastures. The reality is that with modern “farming” practices and the desire to produce large quantities of meat quickly and cheaply with the highest profit, some major changes have occurred in the average cow’s diet—much to the detriment of the health of the cow and you!

Let me walk you through the average life of that piece of meat you see at the grocery store.

When a calf is born, it spends its early days nursing on pastures with its mother. Once it is weaned, it is usually penned and fed hay and grains.

But when a meat cow is old enough, it is ready to be taken to the feedlot. You know those places—you can smell them from miles away! At the feedlot, hundreds or thousands of heads of cattle are pushed together into small living quarters to spend their rest of their living in squalor, eating grain and slop.

Because God created a cow’s rumen to handle grass but not the grains and corn that it is fed, infection and bloat usually sets in. The goal of the feedlot is to fatten the cow as quickly as possible before infection sets in and the cow dies. Because of this, cows are fed a cocktail of growth hormones and antibiotics until they are finally sent to slaughter.

The Grass-Fed Cow

Early life for the grass-fed cow is similar to the modern cow. It spends its days with its mother, nursing and wandering about the grass.

As the cow matures, however, it still has access to forage in the grass as it pleases.  A grass-fed cow is never sent to be fattened at the feed-lot. It just keeps on eating grass and bugs until it is ready to be slaughtered.

Because a grass-fed cow has never been rapidly fattened, the result is a much leaner cow. And because it has not had to live in very cramped quarters with other cows, it has not been pumped with antibiotics.

You may be wondering why grass-fed meat seems so much more expensive than conventional meats. That is because it takes so much longer to fatten a grass-fed cow, and the result is a cow that produces less meat at slaughter.

Photo credit: creight0n

Average Grocery Store Meat

The rapid fattening of the cows at the feedlot results in a meat that is highly marbled with fat. Ironically, meat with more marbling is generally considered higher quality by our culture, and is thus more expensive.

The resulting meat is also high in saturated fats, as well as growth hormones that can wreak havoc on our endocrine systems. Much heart disease is thought to be caused by these unnaturally fatten cows and their hormones.

(Note: I’m sure a lot of you are also concerned about the treatment of these animals. I am as well. While writing this, I have chosen to focus on the actual meat though, since discussing animal treatment is a completely different subject to be saved for another day.)

Grass Fed Meat

On the flip side, there are many benefits to eating grass-fed meats. Here are just a few:

  • The meat is “clean” and not full of hormones or antibiotics.
  • Grass fed meat is much leaner—even leaner than most chicken.
  • The little fat that is on the meat is full of beneficial Omega 3 fatty acids.
  • The meat is less likely to carry diseases such as E. coli or mad cow disease.

How to Cook the Meat

Finding grass-fed meats is pretty easy. It seems that you can find at least one grass-fed option at the grocery store, and at the health food stores you may find many more options. My family loves to eat grass-fed beef, but since we live in the heart of Oklahoma, we also eat a lot of grass-fed buffalo that is readily available at the stores here.

While buying grass-fed meats may be simple, cooking it may not be. Actually, cooking grass-fed meats is easy, but finding quality recipes that instruct on how to handle the unique leanness of the meat are quite rare. Afterall, most mainstream recipe books teach us to value the extra fat in the meats, and also reflect the desire to cook as quickly as possible. But with lean meat, there just can be no shortcuts. Cooking slowly on lower heat is the key to keeping the meat juicy.

I learned this the hard way. After I read through Nourishing Traditions a few years ago, I was eager to start buying grass-fed meats. I came home and cooked it, and much to my dismay, the result was much like chewing on gum. We had to keep chewing, chewing chewing….

Nourishing Traditions has many recipes for handling the grass-fed meats properly. There are also many grass-fed cookbooks out there to help with proper cooking techniques.


If you would like to know more about the whole process of how cows are raised and the difference between feedlot and grass-fed cattle, I have a couple of recommendations.

The hands-down best resource I’ve found is the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan. I will start by saying that I definitely do not agree with everything in his book. However, it provides an extremely thorough look into the meat industry. I will just say that my eating will never be the same after having read that book!

Also, I already said this, but Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon is a wonderful handbook for preparing meats properly.

Related Posts

How to Find Local Sources of Meat

Making the Best of the Regular Grocery Store: Eggs, Meat and Poultry

Help Me Out: Grass-Fed Steaks {This was a cry for help that I (Stephanie) put out a couple of years ago. I completely agree with Beth about learning to cook grass-fed meat differently, and I was really struggling with tough, inedible steaks. There are a lot of helpful readers comments. I have since learned that marinating (esp. with something acidic to begin to pre-digest the meat, like raw apple cider vinegar or buttermilk) helps a LOT}

Do you eat grass-fed meats? Do you have any resources to share?

Top photo credit: Dieter van Baarle