Once upon a time, when I was smaller than I am now but looking to get as big as possible, I lived off of tuna and potatoes almost exclusively for a period of years. That, plus a scoop of protein powder in my morning cereal, was my muscle-building master plan.
Did it work? Sure, to a certain degree. But today, I know that's not the only way to split your sleeves without breaking the bank.
When I get asked by aspiring bodybuilders how to grow without dough—which is pretty much every single day—here's what I tell them to put in their shopping carts.1. Oatmeal
Oatmeal is a staple food, and for good reason. You can buy it in bulk at any big supermarket—that much you know. Oatmeal can go in pretty much every meal, it's easy to travel with, and it plays nicely with both protein and fat sources.
For example, you can mix oats with eggs or egg whites, which is a classic bodybuilder meal. If growth is the goal, though, make sure you use whole eggs. Why? The yolks bring plenty of healthy fats and more calories, both of which you need to add muscle mass.
Personally, I also like to mix oatmeal with some casein. I'll put it in a blender or shaker cold, or I'll cook the oats first, and then add a scoop of casein to it. Voila, there's a meal.
If you're looking for one more thing to add to this muscle-building treat, make it nut butters. Like egg yolks, these are a great source of healthy fats to help support hormone production, and to push you into the calorie surplus you need to build muscle. Almond butter, peanut butter, or just plain nuts like cashews or hazelnuts—they all work.2. Rice cakes
People tend to associate rice cakes with wanting to lose weight, but they're a great not-so-secret weapon that bodybuilders have been using to grow for decades. They're a simple, clean, and easy to get source of calories that pairs well with other great growth foods.
Here's the perfect combo to put on a rice cake: more nut butter—I'm obviously a big fan—and natural fruit jams or preserves. Don't go full cheapo on the jam, since there are some that are pure processed junk. It should contain as much fruit as possible, and just a little sugar.
You may think that almond butter or other nut butters don't qualify as "budget" foods, but since they pretty much last forever, you can buy in bulk and use it over time. Look for deals, shop the Costcos of the world, and stock up.
Get this combo right, and you'll get plenty of healthy fats, nutrient-rich fruit, and just enough healthy, natural sugars to power your workouts and keep your carb stores up where they should be.3. Canned fish
As I said earlier, tuna is what I used to live on, and it's a staple food I still recommend today. But you can overdo it, and there is some fear of mercury levels.
The answer isn't to avoid it, but rather to make it just one of the canned fish you eat. You can't go wrong with canned salmon, especially wild caught, since it's another great source of healthy fats. Both white albacore and chunk light tuna, which is usually made from a smaller fish named skipjack (smaller means less mercury risk), are also solid options.
That, plus some potatoes or rice, and you've got a meal you can grow on. Even better, you could add some salad greens in there, along with low-calorie sauces like hot sauces and mustard or soy sauce.
Here's another idea: Cook some rice or egg noodles, then fry them lightly in a bit of coconut oil. Crack in a couple of whole eggs and stir-fry the whole thing until the eggs are cooked. Let it cool, then add the canned fish when it's time to eat.
One other advantage of egg noodles? They're actually really tasty. That matters! Remember, to grow you'll need to eat a lot. Making good-tasting food can only make that easier.4. Dried fruit and nuts
Sure, these are technically two foods, but together, they make one hell of a snack. Remember: meals aren't all you need to grow. You need snacks, too!
Back in the day when I was just an up-and-coming trainer looking to add mass, I'd carry a fanny pack, or bum bag, full of nuts and dried fruit to snack on between meeting with clients. I'd probably sneak a few during the session, too.
Nuts like almonds, hazelnuts, and cashews will all give you extra calories to help you keep in a surplus. But avoid the sugary versions. Raw is best, since you know exactly what you're taking in.
Buy them in bulk, keep them with you at all times, and train hard, and you'll be primed for growth!