If you are on tight food budget but want to eat in a way that supports a healthy body composition, you’re in luck. Having less to work with is actually an advantage. You cut out the noise of the diet industry when you have to focus on the foods with the most impact. Supplements can be useful, but they won’t stretch your dollar very far. Having a solid base of food, and no other choices, can make all your body composition dreams come true.


Obviously, the task of losing weight will be slightly cheaper than gaining mass. However, both can be done on a shoestring budget.


Here is the big list of the foods you need to reach your goals without breaking the bank.


Inside of a grocery store.

Saavy shoppers look for sales, reach for the bulk bins, and buy seasonal produce.


Your New Grocery Store Staples


  • Bananas: Remember, you don’t need the entire bushel. You are allowed to pick a few off. Pick a few ripe ones and a few greens ones to minimize waste.
  • Apples: Also known as peanut butter carriers.
  • Frozen berries: Can be pricey – look for sales.
  • Oranges



  • Whole carrots
  • Onions by the bag
  • Cabbage
  • Broccoli
  • Frozen mixed vegetables


Meat and Seafood

  • Cod filet
  • Chicken: Choose cuts with dark meat.
  • Rotisserie chicken: Some stores sell them in the $5-6 range.
  • Ground beef


Dairy and Eggs

  • Quality aged cheese: Expensive, yes, but a rich cheese goes a long way compared to the “cheese food.”
  • Greek yogurt: Full-fat is more filling. Get in a large container.
  • Eggs: Buy in bulk - eighteen or more.



  • Potatoes: You can buy a 5lb bag in the $1-2 range.
  • Rice: Look in the bulk section, it is usually cheaper than the pre-packaged version.
  • Pasta: Shop the sales and load up.
  • Quinoa: While pricier than rice, it is a complete protein.
  • Ramen noodles: Did you think I’d forget my favorite college past-time?



  • Peanut butter
  • Small container of olive oil
  • Avocados: Only when in season and on sale, depending where you live.
  • You will get most of your fat from things like meat (the fattier the cheaper), full-fat yogurt, and cheese.


Other Tips

Don’t Forget Spices: Be sure to have spices on hand for flavor. It’s cost-effective to buy in bulk since you usually only need a small amount. Have salt, pepper, Italian blend, chicken rub, and perhaps a taco seasoning in your pantry. You can also split a spice collection with a friend.


Buy Lemon Juice: Lemon juice is a good buy because a little goes a long way. You can flavor your water or use it in recipes.


Go Wholesale: Consider purchasing a wholesale membership. For big savings, find a friend or family member to go with or add you to an account. Wholesale stores are a great place to buy frozen and dry goods, chicken, ramen, other starches, and frozen vegetables.


A variety of spices.

Experiment with spices. Eating on a budget doesn't have to be boring. 


Adjustments for Weight Loss or Gain

That’s the minimalist guide to eating well on a budget. Even if you ate nothing but the listed foods, your workouts would be supported by enough energy and nutrients. But you’ll need to make tweaks depending on if your goal is weight loss or gain.


For weight loss, think more vegetables and less starch. Not because the insulin fairy will block your fat loss by eating too many carbohydrates, but because if you’re on a budget, cabbage will fill you up more than pasta. Pick 3-4 veggies and 1-2 starches to purchase each week.


Avoid snacking if your goal is to lose weight. Stick to three square meals, and be strict with the grocery list. Little candy bars and other sweets can put you over budget quickly with little satisfaction. If you need something sweet, add raisins to the grocery list.


For weight gain, add bread to the list. Nothing fancy, just a cheap loaf. Peanut butter sandwiches are an easy way to grab calories on the cheap.


And speaking of grabbing calories, don’t be afraid to snack. Have some cheaper foods out to pick on throughout the day. Make your own trail mix with raisins and peanuts (from the bulk section, of course). If you can tolerate it, 2 percent or whole milk can help put on mass.


Needs Versus Wants

I had great body composition results in college. Even though I didn’t have a job or a plan, I bought a convertible and eventually a house and adopted a dog. While I was saving, I ate the above foods, rented out a room, drove sparingly, and fed my dog store brand food. I couldn’t sit and eat all day while studying or job searching. I was either working out or at the dog park.


Sometimes going on a “pretend” budget can be just what you need to kick start a program.

It teaches that you more isn’t better. When you have more cash, you can buy higher quality food, but you can also buy more of it. You can also buy the pricy add-ons, like snack food, restaurant meals, and high-calorie beverages.


Eating on a budget is difficult, but the lessons you learn can be invaluable. Focus on what you absolutely need. Everything else is just a luxury.


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Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.