Are you looking to gain weight without breaking the bank?
From personal experience, bulking can get expensive really quickly if you’re aimlessly buying food with high calories.
Lucky for you, I’ve compiled a list of the more affordable options to make sure your bulk goes right.
Whether it’s clean bulking or dirty bulking, these foods will help you gain weight and build muscle without hurting your pockets.
Quick Overview of Dieting for Muscle Gain
Dirty vs Clean Bulking
Gaining weight is a straightforward process. If you eat enough calories, you gain weight.
But how many calories?
The exact number will vary from person to person, but simply put, you need to eat over maintenance. Maintenance calories are the amount of calories you eat to maintain your current body weight.
You should aim to eat 300-500 calories over maintenance depending on how quickly you’re trying to gain weight.
Dirty Bulking vs Clean Bulking
To eat this calorie surplus, you can go about it in 2 different ways, clean or dirty.
Clean bulking is when you’re eating healthy foods to gain weight in a cleaner way. This route tends to be slower progress in terms of the scale but can come with many benefits such as feeling better throughout the process and growing leaner muscle.
Dirty bulking is when you eat like shit to gain weight. This can be helpful because the range of food options you have is much larger. You aren’t restricting yourself as much on the food you eat and are just looking to gain weight in the process. While dirty bulking leads to faster scale results, it also leads to more fat gain.
Most of the time you’ll be within a mixture of the two but it’s ultimately up to you on how clean or dirty you want your bulk to be.
Although calories are the main factor in whether you gain weight or not, you need to be eating enough protein to make sure you’re building muscle, otherwise, you’ll just be gaining fat.
I did this for the first half of my fitness journey and suffered the consequences. You’ll leave a lot of gains on the table if you’re lacking in this part of your diet. Trust me, it sucks.
On a bulk, you should eat around 0.5-0.8g of protein per pound of body weight to gain muscle mass.
Full Bulking Guide with how to exercise and how to eat.
Items to Consider
- Chicken Breast
- Chicken Thighs
- Ground Beef
- Ground Turkey
- Canned Tuna
- Frozen Chicken Strips
- Frozen Chicken Nuggets
- Tofu (v)
- Black Beans (v)
- Kidney Beans (v)
- Protein Powder
- Flour Tortillas
- Shredded Cheese
- Cheese Sticks
- Peanut Butter
Eggs are one of the most popular protein sources for a reason. Although they are low in calories, they’re a clean source of protein that’s affordable.
These can be bought in bulk to help save you some money while helping you reach your daily protein goals.
Protein Tip: When I make rice, I’ll usually add an egg in there for extra protein when I’m bulking. You can scramble it with the rice or throw a sunny side up egg for extra flavor. This way you’ll sneak in 6-7g of extra protein into your meal.
Another popular protein source. While chicken breast is also lower in calories, it’s one of the leanest. Chicken breast is usually less than 2% fat and high in protein. Just 4oz of chicken breast will give you about 25g of protein.
Chicken thighs are a fattier cut of chicken, but they do tend to cost less than chicken breast. With fat comes more flavor, so there is a good trade-off if you’re struggling to eat blander foods. If you are looking to clean bulk, then I’d go for chicken breast since it is leaner, but for the dirty bulking guys out there, pick what you want.
Ground beef is another affordable option to get your protein in. It’s versatile and can be used in a ton of different meals. You’ll typically see 80/20, 90/10, or even 93/7 (Lean meat-to-fat ratio). If you’re looking to save more money, then the 80/20 tends to be cheaper, but you are getting more fat (similar to how chicken breast and chicken thighs are).
As a cleaner option than ground beef, ground turkey is as lean as it gets. From my experience, I’ve only seen 99/1 or 93/7 lean meat-to-fat ratios so there’s no wrong here. Whatever you can make with ground beef, you can do the same with ground turkey. Since it is leaner, expect the meat to be a bit drier than ground beef.
Tuna (Canned or Packets)
One of the best bang for your buck proteins is tuna. These are cheap and come with easy protein. If you don’t feel like cooking, all you have to do is throw this in with some bread and you’ll have an easy 300-400 extra calories and 15-20g of extra protein.
They also typically have a long shelf life so if you’re not in the mood for it, then you can wait to eat it.
Frozen Chicken Strips
Frozen chicken strips are perfect for quick meals. Just throw them in an air fryer and you’re good to go. You can go to Costco and buy them in bulk for a great price.
If you’re looking for a cleaner option, try to find one with less breading, but if you’re dirty bulking and could care less, just pick one that looks good.
Frozen Chicken Nuggets
Another quick meal is chicken nuggets. These are easy to eat and have more flavor than just eating the typical chicken breast and rice.
Similar to chicken strips, look at the ingredients if you’re looking to clean bulk since there can be tons of fillers.
For my vegetarians or vegans out there, tofu is your best bet for an affordable protein source. Even if you aren’t vegan or vegetarian, this is an easy protein to consume.
I used to struggle to eat a lot and got sick of chewing, but tofu is pretty soft usually, and it’s much easier to down.
Black Beans (v)
Black beans are a great source of protein and do come with a ton of carbs. But since you’re bulking, it doesn’t really matter too much. These are cheap and can be bought in a can so all you have to do is heat them up on the stove or in a microwave.
You can also mix it with other proteins to make tacos or a burrito just to name a few examples.
Kidney Beans (v)
Another bean that’s high in protein is kidney beans. These have very similar macros and prices compared to black beans but can be used in different recipes depending on your taste.
Protein powder is one of the best ways to get in your protein without having to eat a full meal. Depending on the protein powder you choose, you’ll get anywhere from 20-30g of protein for under $2.
While protein shakes aren’t high in calories, they are high in protein which you need to build muscle, so don’t neglect them.
Protein Yogurt/Greek Yogurt
I like to have yogurt in my fridge at all times. Whether it’s just for protein, for a snack, or for a high-calorie bomb, it’s an absolute beast of food.
I’ll usually have a protein yogurt with my breakfast to boost my protein numbers or you can use Greek yogurt in tons of ways. You can make sauces, parfaits, healthier ice creams, or whatever the hell you want.
You can buy a bag of potatoes for around $5 depending on the size and it’ll last you at least 5 or more meals. If you’re trying to clean bulk, try to stay away from instant potato mixes as these have a ton of artificial ingredients, extra sodium, sugars, and preservatives.
Another affordable and popular carb is white rice. You can buy this in big bulk bags at the Asian market if you want to make batches at a time with a rich cooker. Or if you want to splurge a bit on instant rice, then you’ll have the benefit of a quicker meal.
You’ll typically have 1-2 cups of white rice in a serving when you’re bulking and this will add 200-400 calories to your meal. Pair it with whatever protein you want and you’ll have a good-sized meal.
Pasta is another cheap carb to add to your meals. These can also add a ton of calories since you’ll usually have it with some type of pasta sauce and protein.
For example, half a cup of spaghetti can get you around 200 calories, but chances are you’ll eat a cup or 2 so you’ll really have about 400-800 calories right there. And that’s not including your sauce or meat.
Depending on the size of the tortilla, you can expect 100-200 calories. If you make tacos, then you’ll probably eat 2 or more, so with this carb, the calories can add up quickly.
They’re also pretty cheap so you’ll be able to use them for multiple meals throughout the week.
A cup of raw oats is about 300 calories. You can make oatmeal, overnight oats, or add it to a parfait for texture.
Shredded cheese is a great source of fats as well as calories. Adding some to foods like tacos and pasta can be a great way to add 100 or more calories to your meal.
Cheese sticks are a great snack with a good amount of protein.
Peanut butter is a staple bulking food. It’s calorie-dense and can add a bunch of flavor to your foods. Whether you just eat it plain on a spoon or add it to your smoothies, just 2 tablespoons can get you close to 200 calories.
If you’re going for a budget-friendly list, frozen veggies are cheaper than fresh ones and they’ll last longer too. As far as picking which ones to eat, just pick what you like.
Honestly, they don’t come with many calories to begin with so picking a variety of them will help you more with vitamins and minerals rather than calorie count.
Here are a few I like to grab:
Bell peppers (Red, Yellow, or Green)
Fruits are great for snacks or smoothies. If you’re going for smoothies/mass gainer shakes then grab frozen fruits. This will help with texture and get you more. It also helps with prep time since you won’t have to slice anything.
Some good fruits to have:
Or whatever you like.
Less Affordable Items But Still Good to Have
Salmon is an amazing food with a high amount of protein, healthy fats, and a good amount of calories. It can be a bit pricey compared to other protein sources, but you do get a ton of benefits for the money.
Olive oil is another fat source that shouldn’t be neglected. If you cook your food in olive oil, you’ll add in more than 100 extra calories that you wouldn’t even notice when you’re eating.
For weight loss people, it’s an enemy, but since you’re on a bulk, it’s gonna be your best friend.
How to Build Your Bulking Grocery List
Since you’re on a budget, you’re obviously not gonna go to the grocery store and just buy everything on the list. You need to tailor it to your needs. Here are a few tips when building your grocery list:
Pick Foods You Like (Taste)
Pick 2-3 different proteins
Pick 2-3 different carbs
Pick up butter and or olive oil
Pick foods you like
Taste is a big thing when it comes to consistency. I’ve gone too many times when I’ll see the perfect macros only to leave the dinner table with a plate of food in the trash because it tastes like shit.
I know the numbers might sound good, but if the food isn’t then keep trying.
Variety is another factor to consider. While some people can eat the same thing every day, others can’t.
I like to pick at least 2-3 carb sources and proteins to make sure I don’t get sick of my meals.
It’s already a pain having to eat a lot of food every day, so why make it any harder than it needs to be?
Pick up Olive oil and or Butter
As mentioned before, cooking your food in olive oil and butter is a great way to add some extra calories and flavor to your food.
100-200 calories might not sound like a lot, but these calories add up quickly.
Let’s say you eat 4 meals a day. 3 of them require cooking something on a pan in some oil or butter. So now you’ll end up with 300-600 extra calories. That’s damn near another meal!
Here are some ways I used the ingredients to help me reach my calories. These are just ideas(obviously), but you can make whatever you want to help you get enough calories.
Whip up a few eggs and mix in whatever your heart desires to get a high-calorie meal. I like to add shredded cheese, ground beef, and onions but the calories can add up pretty quickly when cooked in olive oil.
Breakfast Sandwich + Yogurt Parfait
The good thing about pairing these items is that they both don’t have to have a crazy amount of calories. Your breakfast sandwich could be 400-500 calories with whatever you like in it. Add a parfait with yogurt, granola, and fruit for an additional 300-400 calories and you’ll have a good-sized breakfast.
Chicken Strips and Fries
I like this meal because it’s quick. Just throw them both in the air fryer and you’re good to go.
The good thing about making burritos at home is that you have more control over the macros.
Here’s our high-protein burrito recipe you can make quickly. Just eat 2 of them and you’ll have close to 800 calories without including any sides.
This is mainly for protein and not calories.
Peanut Butter Sandwich
Peanut butter and bread might be dry as hell, but use some milk to help it get down. 1-2 of these and you’ll have 300-600 calories added to your day.
If you’re feeling some Asian flavors, then fried rice is a great way to use your ingredients. Tons of calories and protein and is easy to make.
We have a fried rice recipe with over 800 calories that you can make in less than 30 minutes.
Spaghetti + Bread
I would definitely not recommend this meal early in the day. The amount of carbs you’ll eat with this will make you want to sleep. Great way to finish off the remainder of your calories though!
- Eat more often rather than just more
- Count calories and protein
- Have 1-3 “go-to meals”
- Stay Consistent
Eat More Often
Early on in my fitness journey, I used to think I had to eat 1000+ calorie meals to gain weight. While this can be helpful for some, it can be overwhelming to stick with if you’re a skinny guy who can’t eat much.
Rather than trying to figure out meals with a ton of calories, try to eat 3 to 4 meals throughout the day with some snacks. Eating meals with 600 to 800 calories will be less overwhelming to finish and it’ll leave you space for more food throughout the day.
You can still hit your calorie count while doing this and you won’t feel as bloated.
Count Calories and Protein
Counting your macros can be helpful to make sure you’re getting enough to eat. If there were 2 things to focus on while on a bulk, it would be your calories and protein.
Track your calories to make sure eating enough to actually gain weight and count your protein intake to make sure you have enough to build muscle.
Have 1-3 “go-to-meals”
If I’m being honest, bulking is a lot of work. On top of that, you probably already have a full schedule with either school or work.
That’s why having 1 to 3 go-to meals can be helpful so you don’t have to spend much thought on whether or not you’re getting enough protein and calories in.
It’ll save you time and mental energy.
Gaining weight and building muscle doesn’t happen overnight.
I know how frustrating it can be when you’re putting in all this work in the gym and kitchen only to see the scale not moving as quickly as you would hope.
But you have to stick with it. Create a game plan and organize your fitness. Organize how and when you’re gonna work out and plan out what you’re going to eat the day before.
Once you can create the habits and take action, you’ll be there before you know it.