Let's face it, bodybuilding, and meal prepping in general, can be an expensive and time-consuming hobby. You need to hit your macronutrients, but protein-dense foods aren't cheap. In this piece, I'll discuss how I've navigated these waters during bulking and cutting phases. Spoiler, it IS possible to create healthy meals on a budget that help you achieve your fitness goals. For non-bodybuilders, consider this a budget diet plan for muscle gain.
Bulking on a Budget
Purposely putting on weight can get expensive in a hurry due to the sheer volume of food you need to eat. It's not uncommon for natural bodybuilders to ingest 3,500 or 4,000+ calories per day. Along the whey (pun for emphasis), these athletes eat roughly 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. This defines the two primary concerns during a bulk: total calories and protein intake.
Hitting Your Calories during a Bulk
Eating enough calories every day during a bulk can get tricky. You need to eat either calorie-dense foods or very large volumes of food. There's also only so much you can eat at any given time. For these reasons, you need to focus on spacing out your meals and determining what you'll eat in advance.
Cheap Bulking Foods
Everybody has their own personal preferences for cheap bulking foods, but the following are what I've gravitated toward after over a decade of lifting:
- Peanut butter is very calorie-dense and good enough to eat plain if need be. A single serving is usually about 200 calories, and the amount of protein in it adds up rather quickly for a food that isn't meat.
- Rice is a staple in the bodybuilding community (although there's no magic to it like some suggest). I like to boil mine in a mixture of water and cheap hot sauce for extra flavor. You can get a 20lb bag of white rice from Walmart for roughly $10, representing over 32,000 calories.
- Oatmeal is another "healthy" option for bulking. I use quotes because most people mix in brown sugar and other goodies. At the expensive end, you can buy 10lb for under $20, representing over 34,000 calories.
- Pasta, whether rotini pasta, spaghetti, or other noodles, is easy to prepare with meat, and usually costs about $1 to $2 per pound. A benefit of pasta is the variety of ways in which you can prepare it.
- Other options, when in doubt, include delicacies like Pop-Tarts and frozen pizzas.
Daily Protein Intake during a Bulk
During a bulk, hitting your protein isn't that difficult. Eating so many calories of virtually anything will give you a moderate amount of protein. Even so, it's important to pay attention to it:
- Protein powder is the cheapest protein source you'll find per gram.
- Bone-in chicken with skin is cheap per pound, and can be prepared in a variety of ways.
I would avoid going too fatty on your meat. I've tried 73% lean / 27% fat beef before and was not a fan. Let's just say it's cheaper for a reason. My preference is 93% lean / 7% fat ground turkey meat, which is the most expensive item on my grocery list. The ground meat is more versatile to cook with, which is why I don't solely buy the bone-in chicken with skin.
Cutting on a Budget
Losing weight while hitting your macros is where meal prepping gets expensive. Food that's higher in protein will always cost more on average. Consequently, it takes some strategy to create a cheap meal plan.
Since reaching your total calories is less of a concern when cutting than when bulking, I'll focus solely on protein intake. First, I suggest you read my article on IIFYM to brush up on nutrition basics. Second, note that I will not discuss the meats I talked about in the previous section. They can and should be included here, as well.
Daily Protein Intake When Cutting
As mentioned before, protein powder is pretty much always the cheapest form of protein per gram. Because I shop at Costco, I get a great deal on Optimum Nutrition's Gold Standard Whey. If you don't shop here,
"I would suggest going to Bodybuilding.com on Cyber Monday and other holidays to buy protein powder in bulk when there are discounts."
Protein powder lasts for a couple of years, so you can save by planning in advance. Other low-calorie protein sources include the following:
- Fat-free cheese isn't always cheap, but contains a good amount of protein.
- Fat-free cheese sticks purchased in bulk can be a good deal. For about 30¢ each, you get 50 total calories and 6 grams of protein.
- Eggs traditionally cost around 20¢ to 30¢ each, and contain 70 total calories with 6 grams of protein.
- Sweet peas are high in protein for a vegetable. You can get a 2lb bag at Walmart for a couple bucks. Each serving is under 25¢, totaling 70 calories and 4 grams of protein.
The key is including low-calorie protein sources in every meal.
What Are Your Favorite Budget-Friendly Meals?
During any diet plan, it helps to get creative with your recipes. Even though I regularly buy the same ingredients, I have a few different meals I can make. Meal plans don't need to be boring, and I hope this article proves that they don't need to be expensive, either! Let me know in the comments what your favorite budget-friendly foods and meals are.
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