Probably the most common question I’m asked by bodybuilders is “How much do you eat in a day?” Not what—although of course I get that, too—but how much. To me, this shows just how much people are worried about whether they’re eating enough.
I’m a full-time student at Texas A&M University, and I live in College Station, which is a large college town, so most of the time the person asking the question is a fellow student. When I reply, “6-7 meals per day and between 4,500-5,200 calories,” the person is astounded. (I’m talking about guys only for now; women deserve another conversation). Then they’ll give me excuses like “I don’t have enough time” or “it’s too expensive to eat like that.”
My reply: false, and false. As an economics major and a bodybuilder, I can tell you that I’ve both run the numbers and put them to the test in the real world. No matter who you are or where you live, you can do this!
This is my plan to help you to eat as much as you can handle, with minimal prep time and less money than you’re probably wasting already. Equipment, recipes, and shopping—I’ve got it all right here. So let’s get started.
The Four Kitchen Essentials
Before you get rolling in the kitchen, you’re going to need to outfit yourself with a few essential appliances: a microwave, a slow cooker, a rice cooker, and a George Foreman style grill. You probably already have access to the first of those things, but trust me, the other three are just as important.
They allow you to prepare—in large quantities, I might add—all that is necessary to eat like a bodybuilder in a college setting. An oven is nice to have, as are a stove and a blender, but they aren’t necessary, and most college dorm rooms don’t have them.
Below are the basic dishes I prepare in each of the essential kitchen appliances. I encourage you to go online and do some research to find recipes to fit your taste.
The possibilities are endless, and trust me, there’s no substitute for a good collection of recipes.
I use my microwave to reheat all of my prepped meals. I use it to cook red potatoes and sweet potatoes, both of which I eat almost every day. To cook any kind of potato in the microwave, make sure you do the following:
Rinse and lightly scrub the potato with your hands in cold water. Potatoes are grown in the ground, so they usually have a little dirt on them, and because they typically come in mesh bags, they’ll also pick up other contaminants along the way. Obviously cooking them will kill all bacteria, but who wants to eat dirt?
Using a fork, poke a few holes in each potato you’re going to cook—unless you like cleaning exploded potato off the sides of your microwave.
Cook potatoes two at a time, wrapping each one individually with a wet paper towel. This will help keep them moist and your microwave clean.
For small potatoes, such as red and golden potatoes, lay a damp paper towel over an approximately 10-ounce serving. The cook time will vary from microwave to microwave, but typically potatoes need 6-8 min to cook.
Check for readiness with a knife; if you can put it through the potato with relative ease, you’re good to go. If your knife stops or becomes hard to push, pop the potato back in the microwave for another couple of minutes.
Read more Bodybuilding on a $7 Per Day (Or Less) Budget
2. Slow cooker
We all know how busy a college workload can get, which is why the slow cooker is a must-have. You simply throw the ingredients in, cover it, plug it in, and forget about it for a few hours.
Beyond being convenient time-wise, cooking with a crock pot makes your meats leaner; the fat will melt away into the juice/sauce you’re cooking in. It also keeps things interesting, because the combinations of meats and sauces are infinite.
My favorite meat by far to cook in a slow cooker is chicken, because it gets so tender and easy to eat. But there are thousands of recipes out there, so I encourage you to try your favorite meats and find one you like. This is the basic process, though:
Let your slow cooker heat up for about an hour. Place the thawed meat in the bottom of the slow cooker. Most varieties of slow cookers can hold four boneless chicken breast halves at a time.
Add around a half cup of liquid to help it cook evenly and add flavor. You could simply use water and a bouillon cube, but my personal favorites are salsa, low-fat barbecue sauce, and fat-free salad dressings such as ranch, Italian, and balsamic.
Let it cook! Because the cooker operates at a low heat, meats typically take 3-4 hours on the high setting and 6-8 hours on low. A general rule of thumb is that one hour on high is equal to two on the low setting.
After your meat finishes cooking, retrieve the meat with a fork and dump the remaining contents down the drain.
3. Rice cooker
Like a slow cooker, it’s basically an electric pot that you just plug in. Follow the directions that come on the rice of your choice. A couple of tips:
Put a bouillon cube in with your rice and water. It will give your rice a better flavor without adding calories.
Dress your rice up with different vegetables and sauces. My favorites are black beans or pesto.
4. George Foreman-type electric grill
Get the biggest one you can, so you can cook a lot of food at one time. Some of my favorites to make on the grill are turkey, lean beef burgers, and chicken breasts. Because of the design, excess fat runs off, making it acceptable to use fattier cuts of meat.
Find the Hidden Costs of Your Habits
One of my biggest pet peeves is the people who say they can’t afford to eat the way I encourage them to eat ? as they hold a $2 beverage they just purchased from a vending machine.
Read more Getting Started With the DASH Diet
Coincidentally, that’s how much a carton of eggs costs. Or they clutch an $8 fast food meal or sandwich, which happens to be how much 10 pounds of instant oats costs at Sam’s Club.
See what I’m getting at? If you were to forgo just one fast food meal every two weeks and a $2 purchase every other day, you’d have enough money for the most nutritious breakfast a bodybuilder could ask for, seven days per week. What could be healthier than a bowl of oatmeal and a half dozen eggs?
When it comes down to it, it’s usually not the investment of money that turns people off from eating like a bodybuilder, but rather the investment of their time that grocery shopping and prepping meals requires. But the truth is that just a little advanced planning makes shopping a breeze, while saving money. Here’s how:
First off, get access to some kind of bulk-buy grocery store such as Sam’s Club or Costco. The key word: access! That doesn’t mean buying a membership. I’m almost positive that between parents, family, and friends, there isn’t one of us who couldn’t figure out how to get a member card—or just a member—to use for one afternoon each month. This step is critical, because these stores offer everything in larger value sizes and are priced much more reasonably than conventional grocery stores.
You can buy large amounts of whole foods at club stores like Costco and Sam’s Club. Save money, buy in bulk!
Case in point: a 10-pound container of name-brand oats goes for $8 in a club store. A couple of aisles away, a 43-pound bucket of long grain brown rice costs $40. Imagine how long it would take you to go through that! Lastly, grab a 10-pound sack of red potatoes for $6 and a 4-pound sack of sweet potatoes for $3.50. Carbs solved.
When protein is your highest priority, shopping at a normal grocery store is a big no-no. For example, most grocery store frozen fish comes packaged in 8-oz. bags. What am I supposed to do with that? Not only is it barely one serving, but it also costs nearly as much as the 48-oz. bags I get from Sam’s! And both fish are farm raised, frozen, and unseasoned, with identical nutritional data.
After you grab the fish, walk to the other freezer and grab a 10-pound bag of boneless, skinless chicken breasts for $24. Add in some lean ground beef and turkey breast, and you now have 4 different protein sources, not counting any protein powder you might use throughout the day.
Putting it All Together
Hunter Labrada is a student in College Station, Texas, and he knows how to build muscle on a budget.
Now that we’ve gone over both carbs and proteins, let’s do some quick math. Just for the sake of argument, let’s pretend we all have an appetite like Shrek and can actually eat 10 pounds of oatmeal and 43 pounds of brown rice in two weeks. (Trust me, you can’t.)
I’ve cut this meal plan down to the proteins and carbohydrates only, but I would encourage you to add fruit like bananas and apples, and also frozen vegetables to your diet.
Read more 40 High-Fiber Foods That Should Be On Your Plate Every Day, According To Nutritionists
You could also sub out one of the meat sources, such as the turkey, for an equivalent amount of eggs.
Two Weeks of Macros
- 10 lbs instant oats: $8.00
- 43 lbs long grain brown rice: $53.00
- 10 lbs red potatoes: $6.00
- 4 lbs sweet potatoes: $3.50
- 48 oz frozen tilapia filets: $13.00
- 10 lbs frozen boneless, skinless chicken breast: $24.00
- 2.5 lbs lean ground turkey or 7 dozen eggs: $14.00
- 10 lbs 90% lean ground beef: $30.00
That’s a generous amount of clean food at $75.75 per week. While I realize this is a still looks like a financial commitment, it is definitely less than a majority of students actually spend on food and drinks each week.
If you’re on a meal plan with a cafeteria, that’s a different story. But tell me this: Are you using that meal plan to eat lean proteins, veggies, and healthy fats, or junk foods like pizza? Be honest.
Supplements on a Budget
With all the money you save by being smart with your food shopping and preparing your meals, you might actually have enough money left over to invest in useful bodybuilding supplements. But just as with your food, make sure you make only the purchases which give you the most bang for your buck.
First in my book is a high-quality whey protein isolate, due to the enormous benefit of its rapid digestion after training. It also gives me some flexibility throughout the day with my meals if the circumstances don’t permit a whole food meal.
When I want a sustained flow of amino acids and to stay feeling full, I’m a big fan of proteins which blend fast-, medium-, and slow-release proteins, like Labrada Lean Pro 8. Another advantage of whey protein is that you can make your own “weight gainer” in a pinch. Simply blend your whey protein isolate with oats and a little water and ice in a blender, and enjoy.
Next on my list of supplements to buy on a budget would be a jar of creatine monohydrate. Creatine is a safe, proven muscle builder that is relatively inexpensive. Just make sure you get a quality product that uses pharmaceutical grade creatine. If you want to add beyond that, the next steps would be a fish oil supplement and multivitamin.
It’s Up to You
Bodybuilding isn’t just the hour or two you’re in the gym and the shake you drink afterward. It is a 24-7, 365-day-a-year lifestyle. The rewards, however, are obvious. No matter how much money or prestige you have, you can’t just wake up with a lean, muscular body. It is, and will always be, a reward for hard work and dedication.
In college you run into many temptations that tear you out of the gym. Make sure to force your way back in. Do the work, and your physique will change.
If you’re committed to packing on muscle and you’re training hard, don’t leave your nutrition to chance. You’ve got everything you need here, and in a way that will work with even a bare-bones budget.
But there’s no room in any budget—big or small—for cheap calories like soda, candy, and booze. So cut them out, and wear your results with pride!