Now that you have some hard numbers to aim for each day in terms of calorie/nutrient intake, we will cover cost-saving food shopping ideas for each macronutrient. This will make it easier to go about your grocery shopping trip and preparing your food list.
Poultry, Seafood, and Meat: For the vast majority of bodybuilders and gym-goers, meat, poultry and seafood account for most of the grocery bill. (It’s only natural given that protein is the most crucial nutrient for packing on muscle.)
Lean poultry is by far the cheapest quality protein source, particularly skinless chicken breast. Beef and seafood tend to be quite pricey, especially if you want a lean steak or salmon. If you are craving a good steak or some ground beef, look for a nearby butcher shop and see if they have any deals for buying in bulk. The good thing about animal protein sources is that you can freeze them and they will keep for long periods of time. Always think long-term when you’re buying groceries, as you will almost always save by buying in bulk quantities.
Also, don’t be afraid of fatty animal proteins when you’re bulking; consider buying organ meats, like beef liver, as they give you both quality protein and fat. Chicken thighs are another good choice for a higher-fat animal protein source (avoid the skin though).
Dairy Products: Dairy can be a godsend when you’re on a tight budget, especially high-protein dairy items like cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, cheese, and milk. Most bodybuilders seem to fear dairy because they think it will cause inflammation, but there is actually little evidence that dairy promotes inflammation if you eat less than four servings per day. In fact, research suggests that eating modest amounts of dairy every day has anti-inflammatory benefits (not to mention all the calcium you get from most dairy products is essential for bone health and muscle building).
If you really want to save, opt for full-fat dairy products so that way you get proteins and fats from one source. A common go-to drink for “hardgainers” who want to bulk up is vitamin D (whole) milk.
Whole Eggs: Whole eggs are a staple of many diets, and for good reason. Eggs (especially the yolk) are rich source of micronutrients and essential fatty acids. Contrary to popular belief, the cholesterol in eggs is not inherently bad for blood lipid balance, nor is it a reason to toss out the yolks when you make an omelet. In fact, the yolk is much more nutritious than just the egg white, which is only protein.
Food Oils: Food oils (plant/cooking oils), like soybean oil, palm oil, canola oil, etc. are very cheap sources of fats, but be careful about which types you use in your cooking. Many plant oils tend to be high in omega-6 essential fatty acids, which can throw of your EFA balance and induce low-grade inflammation. Your best bet is to opt for extra-virgin olive oil, safflower oil, coconut oil, macadamia nut oil, or avocado oil. They may be a little pricier, but they still go a long way.
Nuts (and Nut Butters): Whole nuts and nut butters are arguably the most cost-efficient source of healthy unsaturated fats (and easy calories for packing on mass). Peanut butter is the cheapest option by quite a margin, but almond butter is slowly becoming a more affordable choice. You can also find bulk nuts at most supermarkets, which can sometimes be a good deal if they are on sale.
Grains: When it comes to bulking up, grains are the go-to carbohydrate source for most bodybuilders. This is only natural given that things like rice, pasta, quinoa, and oats are highly affordable and good sources of complex, slow-digesting carbohydrates. Most all supermarkets have a bulk-food section where you can bag your own grains; you pay according to the amount (weight) purchased. This is usually much cheaper than buying pre-packaged grains.
Things like bread, cold cereal, and chips may also be decent and cheap sources of carbs. However, be wary of packaged and processed foods, as they are often loaded with sugar and artificial additives. Consuming those things in moderation is ok, but they shouldn’t be your primary sources of carbs.
Legumes: Legumes and beans are often overlooked by bodybuilders and gym-goers despite being an exceptional (and cheap) high-fiber carb source. Even one serving (120 grams) of black beans packs upwards of eight grams of fiber and 20 total grams of carbs. Legumes/beans are also loaded with iron and magnesium, as well as protein.
Whether you buy raw or canned legumes/beans, they are an inexpensive, nutrient-rich food.
Vegetables: By far, the simplest way to cut cost on veggies is to opt for the frozen varieties. Don’t worry, just because they are frozen doesn’t mean they no longer have all their micronutrients and fiber. A great thing about frozen veggies is that they keep for a long time, meaning you can buy them in large quantities without fear that they will go to waste.
For fresh veggies, keep an eye out for sales on things like cauliflower, broccoli, cucumber, carrots, salad mix, and others as they can be very affordable options. Fresh root vegetables (like turnips and rutabagas) and potatoes are also healthy fibrous carb sources that won’t put much of a dent in your food bill.
Even though canned vegetables are generally the cheapest, you’re better off spending a little more and getting frozen or fresh veggies. Canned vegetables are generally devoid of their micronutrients and packed in sodium solution. They have nowhere near the nutritive value as their fresh/frozen counterparts.
Fruits: Fruit can be an excellent preworkout and post-workout carb source, plus they are generally rich in antioxidants and polyphenols that you won’t find in any other foods. Unfortunately, fruit is also one of the more expensive food groups these days.
For the most part though, bananas, apples, and oranges are decent bang for your buck. Fresh fruits and frozen fruits are usually similar in price; depending on how long you plan to keep them, the fresh options are the better way to go.
One of the most prudent ways to save a significant amount of money on groceries is to look for weekly ad deals and short-sales, then buy in bulk. For example, many stores will periodically cut the cost of meat as part of a weekly ad promotion; when this happens, head to the store and stock up! If the price for chicken breast is normally $4 per pound, then even a 25% off sale can save you a hefty sum of money in the long run.
Many grocery chains and supermarkets these days have phone apps that let you browse their catalog and see all the relevant sales going on. Plus, they generally offer exclusive digital coupons that can save you a good chunk of change.
Acquiring in bulk when there's sales going on is vital to maximizing your food budget.
Moreover, grocery stores will commonly short-sale food items that are nearing expiration; this can be a fantastic chance to stockpile foods that generally would run out your budget. You have to be a bit of a night owl to capitalize on short sales though, since supermarkets typically do it near the end of the day just to try and get rid of items before they can no longer be sold.
Last but not least, be sure to avoid brand-name items which will run up your grocery expense substantially compared with their generic/off-brand counterparts. The majority of supermarkets have an exclusive house brand that is considerably cheaper than brand-name options. At the end of the day, it’s the same food, so go with the cheapest option when there’s more than one choice of brand.
Additionally, it should be rather intuitive that dining out is not a prudent choice when you're trying to build lean mass on a budget. The food options at most restaurants are both expensive and low in protein, two things that are no bueno for mass building.
Remember, you're on a limited spending plan so you need to maximize your dollar, not the other way around. That being said, if you have no choice but to eat out while you’re in a pinch or on vacation, then choose affordable restaurants/diners instead of a five-star sushi bar.
With any luck after reading this guide you should be much more confident about being able to pack on mountains of muscle even when your food budget is limited. Don’t buy into the excuse that “it’s too expensive to eat healthy,” as that is simply not true if you’re smart about your food choices and willing to look for good deals.