My fiancé and I have polar opposite body types. And, as irony would have it, we also have polar opposite body types to what we each desire. Me? A week of having a relative in town and eating more carbs and calories than usual combined with my regular weight lifting sessions had my fiancé suggesting, “Maybe you want to skip arm day?” On the flip side if my fiancé doesn’t eat literally all day long, he can’t put on the muscle he wants to gain. I am a hypertrophic beast and he is a hard gainer.


hard gainer, hard gainer on a budget, hard gainer tips, tips for gaining muscleSo while I spend my days daydreaming about bread, my fiancé spends his eating his way through the family-sized cooler we pack for him every morning. Given that we don’t have an endless budget and that he does have a job – aside from eating – we try to keep his food easy to consume and easy on the wallet. This means he doesn’t eat at restaurants during the workday, but rather slowly works his way to the bottom of his cooler. (In addition, he doesn’t have a microwave at work, so some of you may have more options than he does – like heating up healthy leftovers from dinner.)


Here’s what inside the magic cooler, along with our tips for how to feed a hard gainer without going broke. Beware: if you are a hardcore paleo eater you might cock your head at some of the suggestions on this list. Strict paleo is not realistic for the typical hard gainer. (By the way, many of you have a hard gainer in your household, you just refer to them as a “teenager.”)




hard gainer, hard gainer on a budget, hard gainer tips, tips for gaining muscleSandwiches


Canned tuna and canned chicken are pretty darned affordable and chock full of protein. We typically make two sandwiches by mixing about 8oz of canned meat (two regular-sized cans) with mayonnaise and putting it on gluten-free sandwich bread.


Pro Tip: We make these so often that our cat now recognizes the can opener when we pull it out of the drawer and he starts meowing. So if you own felines, take heed.


hard gainer, hard gainer on a budget, hard gainer tips, tips for gaining muscleProtein Shakes


My fiancé goes through four or five of these every day. They are cheaper and more convenient than “real food,” and eating that many calories of chicken would be just kind of insane.


Depending on your price point, here are some possible options:


  • Optimum Nutrition: If money is your main issue, then this is a good option. According to one Reddit user's testing, it's more likely than many other proteins to actually be what it claims.
  • True Nutrition: The amazing thing about this site is you can build your own powder from scratch. You can choose the flavor, the sweetener, and even the packaging, and still at a good price.
  • DotFit: Another good option if you’re on a budget, but make sure to read all the ingredients in case there’s anything in particular you’re excluding from your diet. DotFit tests all their ingredients and their end result to make sure it really is what it is, so you can be sure you're not wasting money with this one.


Pro Tip: You might want to buy more than one flavor of protein powder. If you’re consuming one or more shakes every day it’s easy to grow tired of a single flavor.


hard gainer, hard gainer on a budget, hard gainer tips, tips for gaining muscleCottage Cheese


If you can tolerate dairy, cottage cheese is a great resource for protein. The protein in cottage cheese is casein, which is slow digesting and great for days when you’re not working out or if you want to jam some protein in before going to sleep at night.


Pro Tip: I make sure I buy a brand with no carrageenan. It’s seriously slimy and perhaps not so healthy, either. That can ratchet up the cost, but will also likely ratchet up your enjoyment. Some brands also have live cultures, which are great for your guts, so getting a more expensive brand might be worthwhile.


Hard-Boiled Eggs


Protein doesn’t get much easier than this, not to mention all the great omegas that come with eating eggs. I boil up a dozen eggs on Sunday and we’ve both got snacks to grab all week long. It’s easy to burn out on hard-boiled eggs though, so I’d recommend not using them as your predominant protein source or after a week you’ll hate every egg you encounter.


Pro Tip: A way to keep things interesting would be to make egg salad sandwiches out of them periodically, although your cat might be seriously disappointed by this turn of events.




hard gainer, hard gainer on a budget, hard gainer tips, tips for gaining muscleRice


Yes, I know those of you who are paleo are presently aghast, but sometimes rice is the answer. While our household is 100% gluten free, it is not grain free. Remember those stories of Michael Phelps eating piles of pancakes? Someone who burns a lot of calories needs a lot of calories. Rice is particularly easy calories to both purchase and consume. In addition, the sugars in rice clear the human body pretty quickly, so the impact on your system is short and, well, sweet.


Pro Tip: Since gluten-free bread gets expensive, but even organic rice is cheap (especially if you buy bulk), recently my fiancé started just mixing tuna and mayo together, and eating it with a side of rice. This saves us sandwich-making time, too.




Apples, bananas, and oranges regularly make it into my fiancé’s cooler. Easy to eat, full of calories, but jam-packed with awesome nutrients as well.


Pro Tip: Never stash a banana in your gym bag.




Heavy Cream and Butter


I had a friend a few years back who resorted to carrying around a bottle of olive oil and drinking straight from it to get in all his calories. This is not recommended, but lots of good fats are a good thing for hard gainers. If you can tolerate dairy, put heavy cream in your coffee in the morning. This same aforementioned friend also used to slice up sticks of butter and eat it as if it were cheese. So, you know, you can always pack a stick of butter in your cooler.




Buy a few packages of mixed nuts and keep them stashed everywhere you or your hard gainer goes – the car, the office, the gym bag, and the cooler.


hard gainer, hard gainer on a budget, hard gainer tips, tips for gaining muscleNow you have some ideas on what foods are good choices for a hard gainer, but you’re still left with making sure enough gets eaten. One tool my fiancé uses is a calorie counter app in his phone. In the mornings when we measure out his portions and pack up his cooler, he builds his day of food in the calorie counter. As things go in the cooler they get entered in the app. Once the app shows he’s hit his calorie goal (leaving aside an allotment for dinner) we stop packing food. Now he knows that all he has to do is eat everything in the cooler and he’ll make his mark. No thinking, no counting – just eating.


Having a hard gainer in the household can be a project. It’s not necessarily fun for the person in question to have to eat all day, so the more variety you can sustain and the more enjoyable the food is, the more likely it will actually be eaten. Keeping up that amount of food isn’t always easy on the budget either, so hopefully this list has helped you brainstorm some new ideas on how to feed a hard gainer despite a busy, modern lifestyle.

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