TOPICS:
Bulking

The grocery aisles are barely wide enough to contain IFBB pro standout Evan Centopani. This world-class competitor knows all the tricks about how to gain mass on the cheap. Join him on shopping day!

People get a kick out of my story about how I used to eat three breakfasts every morning as a kid. I grew up in a rural area, where my grandparents lived across the street and my cousins lived next door.

My mother was forever on my ass trying to control what went in my mouth, because I was like a human vacuum cleaner. So I'd eat my "healthy" breakfast at home, and then I'd walk across the street to "see Grandpa." That meant sitting down with him for fried eggs and toast, because he loved to feed me, and I loved that he loved to feed me.

After wrapping it up with Grandpa, I'd head over to my aunt's house. My aunt and uncle had a 130-pound Doberman named Gunther, so they never bothered locking their doors. Their lazy Susan was unlocked too, and it housed every sugar-laden breakfast cereal that my mother specifically forbade: Apple Jacks, Sugar Smacks, Cocoa Puffs, Frosted Flakes, and my all-time favorite, Lucky Charms.

In short, I ate for pleasure, and I had a lot of pleasure in my life. That lasted the first 15 years of my life. Then I got serious about training, and everything changed.

Sample Periodization for Muscle Growth

  1. Get the newspaper and shop the weekly sales circulars.
  2. Know your prices. Chicken breasts for $1.99/lb are out there if you keep looking.
  3. Clip coupons and use them without shame.
  4. Eat eggs! Buy them in bunches and eat them the same way.
  5. Be flexible. When chicken breasts aren't cheap, go with thighs.
  6. Learn to cook. Don't rely on someone else to make your food decisions.
  7. Shop around. An incredible deal could be just down the road.
  8. Find the protein you like, then compare prices and buy big.
  9. Supplement your supps with things like peanut butter, olive oil, and oats.

Maximum muscle for minimal money

Around the age of 15, I began riding my bicycle to a grocery store to shop for things that my parents generally didn't buy, like chicken breasts and multigrain bread. Becoming a professional bodybuilder and making a living from the sport hadn't entered my head. I had never been to a pro bodybuilding contest, met a pro, or had a magazine subscription, and I couldn't tell you what NPC stood for. I just wanted to train hard, look my best, and get onstage just to do it.

Riding home from the grocery store, I felt like the key to success lay in those bags dangling from my handlebars. Honestly, I didn't know what the hell I was doing, but I had read enough to understand that proper nutrition was crucial to achieving my goals. However, I didn't see the need to plunk down money I didn't have to for food. Truth be told, even if I had seen it as necessary, it wasn't an option at that time in my life.

In the name of getting the most for my money, I never shopped for food in my own town. I lived in the suburbs, and my father pointed out to me at a young age that people in the suburbs pay too much for everything. Going to the chain supermarket in town, he said, was like flushing money down the toilet.

The solution: pedal to the next town over, where I found a grocery store with lower prices, greater ethnic variety, and fresher produce than anything in my town. Plus, the people just seemed friendlier over there. Why? I had no clue, but they were.

The bulk of my diet consisted of eggs, chicken, protein powder, potatoes, rice, oats, and veggies. Fast forward a few years, when I was fresh out of college, way more knowledgeable, and totally dedicated to the competition lifestyle, and guess what? My diet was made up of those same fundamentals. I was able to obtain my IFBB pro status eating like a cheap bastard for just four meals per day, and if I could do it, so can you.

Gains for a Grant

When Animal asked me how far I could make $50 go for the "Big on a Budget" challenge, I didn't need long to figure it out. All I needed to do was look back at what I ate when I was an up-and-coming bodybuilder. Hell, if it weren't for the fact that my old digs had gone under, I'd have gone right back to the same store.

To get big like Evan, you don't have to spend a fortune, but you do have to be smart about your purchases. Sometimes a short drive can save big bucks.

It's true that I now eat twice the amount of whole food that I used to eat, and I have the luxury of incorporating things into my diet that I couldn't afford in the past, like fresh fish. But some things haven't changed. I still go to the next town over when I want to stock up on produce and other random items on the cheap. Sponsored or not, nobody wants to spend money when they don't have to.

For the challenge, I loosely based my grocery list on the off-season diet I was using prior to turning pro. And with $50, I was easily able to buy the whole food that I would typically consume for a week.

Here's what I purchased:

  • Approx. 10.5 pounds of Boneless Skinless Chicken Thighs
  • 10.5 pounds of Potatoes
  • 14 crowns of Broccoli
  • 1 tub of quick Oats
  • 7 dozen large Eggs
  • 7 Bananas

Cooked and prepared, this quantity of food was used to construct the following daily diet:

Meal 1
Eggs
6
Oats (cup)
1
Banana
1/2
Meal 2 and 3
Chicken (oz)
8
Baked Potato (oz)
8
Broccoli (cup)
1
Meal 4
Eggs
6
Oats (cup)
1
Banana
1 /2

Here is the approximate macronutrient breakdown for those 4 meals. (Note: protein from incomplete sources not included.)

  • Meal 1: Carb-53g / Protein-36g / Fat-30g / Calories-420
  • Meal 2: Carb-46g / Protein-56g / Fat-24g / Calories-730
  • Meal 3: Carb-46g / Protein-56g / Fat-24g / Calories-730
  • Meal 4: Carb-53g / Protein-36g / Fat-30g / Calories-420
  • Total: Carb-198g / Protein-184g / Fat-108 / Calories -2300

Shake Up Your Diet

The whole foods listed above are close to what I was eating in my amateur days, and with a little leg work, you should be able to get it all for $50. I calculated out the cost per meal at $1.79 on average, give or take. The macros line up almost perfectly along a 40/40/20 carbohydrate/protein/fat split.

However, it was standard for me to have two protein shakes each day, to which I added some type of fat, typically peanut butter. Here's what the shakes looked like:

Protein Shakes 2 per day
Protein Powder (scoops)
3
Peanut Butter (tbsp)
2
Oats (cup)
1/2

Nutrition Facts

  • Calories 614
  • Total Fat 16g
  • Total Carbs 30g
  • Protein 63g

If you are looking to keep the cost down, buy your high-quality whey in economy-sized 5-pound jugs. For roughly $50, you'll get 77 scoops of protein. If peanut butter gets a little rich for your blood, another good cheap fat source to try is extra virgin olive oil.

Right now, I'm looking at a 750-ml bottle of excellent quality olive oil that I purchased for $9. It contains 50 1-tbsp servings, which works out to 18 cents per tbsp.

Extra-Cheap Protein Shakes 2 per day
Protein Powder (scoops)
3
Olive Oil (tbsp)
1
Oats (cup)
1/2

Nutrition Facts 

  • Calories 630
  • Total Fat22g
  • Total Carbs33g
  • Protein66g

Depending on protein cost and shipping, my cost per shake with olive oil comes in at around $2.25, which is $4.50 per day or $31.50 for the week. That's $6.50 more than going all whole food with six meals. But for this extra amount, I would get an additional 40 g of protein per day, while sparing 10 g of fat and 32 g of carbs. And of course, it's always nice to taste something different. I can be tight, but I wouldn't personally have any trouble parting with the extra $6.50 for the week to get a little extra variety—and protein—in my life.

If you or anyone you know can put together a solid diet that complete for $81.50 per week, I'll be damn impressed. Tailor it to your needs, your caloric requirements, and how much you want to grow. For one guy, this could be enough. For another, this could just be the starting point.

No matter what your end goal, it's still worth your time to be smart, shop wisely, and get big on a budget. Good luck!

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