It seems as though most truly American dishes are based on ground meat. Burgers, meatloaf, American Chop Suey... It makes sense, given that these dishes originated in the home where pinching pennies was and still is important. Ground meat has traditionally been economical because it was made from the end cuts and pieces that the butcher couldn't sell as steaks, roasts, or other cuts.
In the last few years, ground meat, especially ground beef, has become almost as expensive as some of the primary cuts. This may be partly due to the fact that we demand leaner meat these days, requiring the butcher to use better cuts and it could just be a matter of supply and demand and popularity. For example, in the 1970's, a flank steak was one of the cheapest cuts of meat you could buy because it was tough and chewy and nobody wanted it. Today, thanks to the popularity of fajitas, flank is among one of the more pricey cuts.
If you find that you have more time than money, one of the things you can do is grind your own meat. It sounds awful and time consuming but in actuality, it's pretty easy if you have the right tools. Plus, it tastes better, saves you money, and you can control the fat content. This Christmas, I bought a piece of pork butt and ground it myself for my meat pies. I ended-up saving about $2 per pound over the pre-ground pork and it was leaner and tastier. I've done the same with beef when pot roasts and bottom roasts are on sale.
Of course, if you want to grind your own meat, you need a meat grinder. Alton Brown of the TV show Good Eats claims you can use a food processor for the job if you're careful and many people already have those. Check it out on FoodTV.com if you're interested.
Another option is a hand-crank grinder. This is the old metal thing that Grandma used to clamp to the kitchen table and crank away. You can find them for little money at antique shops, yard sales, or even in Grannie's closet. If you've got the arm strength, time, and stamina for it, be my guest. It builds character. :-)
I prefer to use an electric meat grinder most of the time. I happen to have an attachment for my KitchenAid stand mixer. However, truth be told, a stand-alone grinder costs about the same price. Check thrift stores like the Salvation Army and yard sales. You may find a second-hand one for a bargain. The same goes for eBay.
Purchase a piece of inexpensive meat. If the meat is particularly lean, ask the butcher for some "fat back" or buy a roast with a fat cap on the top of it. You need some fat, even in lean ground meat in order to not end-up with a gritty texture once cooked. Don't worry about how much is on the meat as you're going to cut it off and add it to taste anyway.
Separate the meat from the fat and any bone and cut any gristle or silver skin off. Cut both the meat and the fat into rough 1-inch pieces. Decide how much fat you want to include, either by weight or by eyeballing it and put the excess aside.
Put the die with the larger holes into your grinder and place a large bowl under the output--use a large bowl because the meat tends to splatter a bit. Begin grinding according to the directions that came with your grinder, alternating pieces of fat with meat as best as you can. When done, mix the meat gently if the fat is not evenly distributed. Divide the meat into portions and put into zip-top storage bags if freezing or storing.
Extra Perk: Homemade Sausage
If you're grinding your own meat, homemade sausage patties are only a step away. Find a good sausage seasoning recipe and toss the meat cubes with the seasoning prior to grinding. Let it sit in the fridge for an hour or so and then grind as before. Form the meat into patties and cook or store. It's that simple. And, if you let the sausage rest in the fridge for another hour or more, it'll become even more flavorful.
I personally love the breakfast and Italian sausage recipes from Alton Brown's Good Eats episode on sausage. They also can be found at www.FoodTV.com.