Let's face it, bodybuilding, and meal planning 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, both 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.
Budget Bulking Meal Plan
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
While this is typically considered the easiest part of any diet, especially as you reach the higher calorie totals of your weight-gain plan, it can get surprisingly 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 this reason, you need to focus on spacing out your meals in advance and having an idea of what you'll eat during each meal. I can't tell you how many times I've accidentally forgotten about my last 750 calories or so until 10:00 p.m. To avoid this, do your best not to skip meals.
A lifesaver for me during a bulk is peanut butter. It's very calorie-dense, and good enough to eat plain if need be. I'll usually keep a container in the refrigerator for cases like this. A single serving of peanut butter is usually about 200 calories. Much of that comes from fat, which works in your favor on the calorie end. There's also a good amount of protein, which adds up rather quickly for a food that isn't meat. While there are other calorie-dense and fatty foods out there, I prefer the fats from nut-based products.
You might focus on eating products high in carbs, as well. Rice is a staple in the bodybuilding community (although there's no magic to it like some suggest). I like to mix cheap hot sauce into the water I boil my rice in so that the rice soaks it up. You can get a 20lb bag of white rice from Walmart for roughly $10, representing over 32,000 calories. Another "healthy" option is oatmeal. 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 (note that this is more expensive than rice, especially if you add brown sugar/cinnamon). Rotini pasta, spaghetti, and other noodles are easy to prepare with meat, and usually cost about $1 to $2 per pound. Lastly, when in doubt, buy some Pop-Tarts or 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 you'll find per gram. Otherwise, you can look for bone-in chicken with skin. I shop at Costco and get drum sticks and thighs for 99¢ per pound. Throw that in an air fryer with some seasoning and it tastes delicious.
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.
Budget Cutting Meal Plan
Losing weight while hitting your macros is where dieting 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, though, 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. That said, it can still be pricey. 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 in bulk when there are discounts. Protein powder lasts for a couple of years, so you can save by planning in advance.
While not always cheap, fat free cheese is a protein-rich food source that I purchase when cutting. Obviously, the calories saved by removing the fat come in handy. I'm also a fan of fat free cheese sticks purchased in bulk. For about 30¢ each, you get 50 total calories and 6 grams of protein. Another great option is eggs, which cost around 20¢ to 30¢ each. A normal egg contains 70 total calories and 6 grams of protein. Finally, how about a vegetable? Sweet peas are highly underrated in my opinion. 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.