Why You Should Buy a Whole (or Half) Chicken

don't be chicken! why you should cook a whole bird

A farmer doesn’t raise chicken breasts or chicken legs, she or he raises whole chickens. So when demand for one part is much higher than the others, this creates a supply problem. This is why so many small farmers prefer to sell whole chickens (or half a hog or a side of beef). Processing is also cheaper for whole chickens, and this savings is usually passed on to the customer. I’m sure you’ve noticed that whole chicken is cheaper per pound than just breasts or thighs. So, if you can find a use for all the parts, it's a more affordable way to purchase your meat.

But what to do with a whole chicken? For anyone trying to cook more at home and learn more about whole foods eating, an entire chicken is a welcome problem. Cook the whole bird, and you end up with plenty of leftovers to go into other meals. Plus, a great bonus is the chance to make stock from the carcass. It’s not just an old wives tale that chicken broth is a cure-all. Broth supplies minerals including calcium, magnesium and potassium as easily-assimilable electrolytes, and gelatin which aids in digestion, besides being helpful for a number of other ailments.

When buying a whole, pasture-raised chicken, there is sometimes a bit of sticker shock. But we suggest you consider a shift in thinking. Think how many meals you can get out of your purchase. And consider how our planet would be better off if we considered meat more of a luxury item. Perhaps you don’t need to eat as much, and can accept quality over quantity. The cheap chicken we’re used to is also “one of the great myths of our modern industrialized food system” according to Shannon Hayes, farmer and author of several cookbooks on pastured meat. In Long Way on a Little, she writes: “Chicken is very expensive to produce. In fact, it is the most expensive meat we raise on the farm. Grocery store chicken only looks cheap because you’ve already paid for it in your tax bill. Through the farm bill, U.S. taxpayers pay approximately $20 billion per year in direct payments to farmers, over one-third of which goes for the production of feed grain. Much of this subsidy is paid out to vertically-integrated industrialized meat production companies who, as a result, are able to feed their livestock grain for less than the price of growing it. Small-scale farmers are generally not in a position to vertically integrate, and therefore cannot gain the same advantage from these grain subsidies.”

She explains how chicken is more expensive to raise than cattle or sheep because they are more labor-intensive to care for and to process. Cheap chicken is a relatively new phenomenon. Yet, farmers are compelled to sell it cheaply to hang on to their customers: “We wince every time a customer bristles at paying $20-$25 for a single chicken, knowing the cost to us in terms of time and labor was even greater than that final price.”

To further distort the public’s perception of cheap chicken, the vast majority of chickens raised today are Cornish Cross, which are bred for efficient meat production and not much else. These birds are programmed to be ready for slaughter at 6-8 weeks of age. This compares with traditional breeds that aren’t mature until 12-16 weeks. Growers are forced into growing this breed, then, if they want to compete in the marketplace, since any other breed would cost up to twice as much to raise in terms of labor and feed costs.

So think out of the boneless, skinless chicken breast box, try a whole or half chicken, help a small farmer, and get a few delicious meals in the process!


Nourishing Traditions, Sally Fallon
Long Way on a Little, Shannon Hayes