Protein is the key to muscle growth, but it’s also a real pain when you’re on a budget!
High-quality protein sources like fresh chicken breast and salmon can be incredibly expensive. In an ideal world, we’d all have our choice of foods for the best nutritional health, but the reality is never quite so easy.
Building a protein-rich diet on a budget can be challenging. Today we’re going to talk about cheap sources of protein. Whatever your situation – whether you want to save money on your groceries or you’re trying to handle the costs of a huge intake – we’ve got you covered!
Why Does Protein Matter
Protein has some awesome benefits that extend beyond simply being the number one nutrient for physique enthusiasts and serious athletes:
- Health: proteins are key in your body for more than muscle mass. They’re important parts of everything from DNA to blood health, and your overall well being requires a balanced protein intake.
- Muscle: muscles are built in response to protein intake and resistance training. If you get these two sorted, your training will start to show great results. This also means better aging and reduced risk of fractures as you reach advanced age!
- Joints: the joints are made of proteins, too – collagen is one of the most important aspects of longevity. As time starts to wear your joints down, proper protein intake can protect you from the risk of tendon weakness.
- Fat loss: protein has the greatest thermic effect of any nutrient and is one of the most important aspects of a weight-loss diet. It’s not just for getting stronger and muscular – proteins improve your ability to stick to your diet and the effects that diet will have.
- Metabolic-digestive health: protein is a slow-digesting nutrient which helps reduce the effect of meals on blood sugar and slow down the digestion of fast-absorbing foods like sugars and simple starches.
A diet that is rich in protein is one that is easy to stick with, a tool to change body composition, and fantastic for long-term health. You need to balance this up against proper vitamin and mineral intake – as well as your overall calories – but when all things are equal, a protein-rich diet is better for your health, appearance, and performance.
23 of the Best Cheap Protein Sources
#1 Chicken (frozen)
Frozen chicken breast is a relatively cheap way to get your protein fix. While a 500g bag may cost a few bucks, the huge protein content is enough to keep the cost-per-gram low. You only need 2 chicken breasts for around 50g of protein which is plenty for a single meal.
You can get frozen chicken breast at almost any grocery store but, of course, bulk buying is the best way to make sure you’re getting the best value for money. This is especially helpful if you’re planning to food prep anyway!
#2 Chicken (thigh)
While it’s not as lean as chicken breast meat, chicken thighs and drumsticks are often available quite cheaply at your local store. They’re not as prized as chicken breast due to the slightly higher fat content, but they make for much better eating, and they’re an amazing way to cut your costs while keeping your protein intake high.
2-3 chicken drumsticks or legs can provide the same protein intake as 2 chicken breasts and you can usually catch them at low costs. Bulk buying is a great choice, and we strongly recommend a good marinade – the fattier cuts hold flavour much better.
#3 Beef mince
Mince is an easy way to make the most of your beef purchases. It’s versatile, takes on the flavour of good seasoning, and you can get it much cheaper than full cuts.
While it’s not the same level of luxury that you might get with a new York strip, it fits almost any meal and can add protein to your diet at a decent cost. Don’t worry about getting super-lean steak mince. A higher-fat mince will be a good balance and make sure you’re not over-spending.
#4 Secondary cuts of beef (learn to stew)
If you’re really determined to focus on beef, make sure to look for those cuts that are often neglected.
As with the mince, a second-choice cut isn’t a bad cut. It just means it’s not as popular. If you learn to stew or cook beef cuts properly, you can make a great saving by switching from the choice cuts to the flank or cube steaks.
Stewing these cuts is a great way to keep them tender, delicious, and cut out a lot of the cost of more popular cuts of beef.
#5 Protein supplements
There’s a reason that protein supplements are so popular – and its certainly not because of the taste.
A protein powder is an easy way of increasing your protein intake on budget. Whether you’re a broke student trying to keep up with your needs or an athlete with an exorbitant protein requirement, saving money here is a popular choice.
There are countless protein powders on the market but the simple ones are the best for this. Avoid frills and big names that have fancy words on the label. You want a simple whey or vegan blend protein – they’re pretty much all the same. Go cheap and add a little bit extra to each serving if you’re worried about protein content!
The best protein and carb source on the planet, these two types of pulses make a big difference to anyone’s diet.
They can be purchased at around half a dollar per can if you look in the right places. We don’t recommend buying huge bags of beans as soaking them can be a real challenge and takes a lot of time.
Buy tins of beans/chickpeas and slow-cook them in a casserole together with a simple pomodoro sauce to provide a great, high-protein base for a casserole. Easy and delicious!
More classic plant foods! Lentils and quinoa have become popular recently with the rise in plant-food diets. They’re popular in these groups as a source of fantastic protein at a ridiculously low price.
You can acquire a pound of lentils for a few dollars and make them go a long way. One bag of lentils is plenty and you can mix it with other foods like Quinoa and fish to make easy, fantastic muscle-building meals.
#8 Frozen White Fish Fillets
If you’ve been to your local store and seen “white fish fillets”, you might wonder what they actually are.
Crucially, they’re cheap and protein-rich. This is key. Fish is a great lean protein source on a budget and these non-descript fillets (usually cod, tilapia and similar fish) are high in protein, easy to cook, and one of the most versatile cheap high-protein foods.
If you’re looking for the best protein sources on a budget, it doesn’t get much better than this. It’ll cost almost nothing compared to fresh fish and a few lbs of fish will cost equally few dollars.
#9 Steamed Ready Meals
These are pretty popular in frozen food stores and they’re often designed to provide lots of protein, few calories, and cost almost nothing.
These are usually like “ready meals” – they steam in the microwave – and contain foods like chicken breast, calamari, or fish. These are an easy way to get high-quality proteins and veg into your diet with almost no effort.
If you’re working or studying a lot, these take around 10 minutes to prepare, but provide plenty of protein and micronutrients. Look for chicken- and fish-heavy dishes to make sure you’re getting the best nutritional values.
#10 Turkey (Mince and Beyond)
While it’s less popular than chicken, turkey is an amazingly lean food source with a wealth of easy cooking options. It soaks up the flavour of anything it’s cooked with and can be combined with other foods easily.
This is key to putting together a high-protein diet. You can get turkey mince, breast or thigh relatively cheap – especially if you opt for frozen options. Ground turkey is sold by the pound and stocking up in advance might save you some serious cash.
#11 Lower-Quality Meats (e.g. sausage meat)
If you’re looking to save money while also eating super-clean, you might need to pick between the two. Eating clean can be an expensive habit.
Lower-quality meats like ground sausage meat and bacon may not be the healthiest option all the time, but they’re a much cheaper choice when you look in the right places. As with ground turkey, you can find sausage meat by the pound and it is a versatile foodstuff.
Just make sure you combine these foods with plenty of high-quality veg, and you should be able to save money, increase your protein intake, and eat well along the way!
You knew they were going to be on this list!
Eggs are the quintessential cheap protein source. An egg contains 6 grams of protein and you can get packs of 30 for almost nothing. With cooking options from frying to poaching to hard-boiling, eggs are appropriate for any meal or snack.
If you’re really struggling for cash but need to keep your protein intake up, eggs are your saviour. They’re especially easy to save on when you’re bulk-buying.
#13 Greek yoghurt
Another cheap option, a low-fat Greek yoghurt is super-high in protein. It comes with around 30g of protein per container and you can get large packs with a great per-gram discount.
We recommend combining half a tub of Greek yoghurt with some fruit and the nuts/seeds on this list. This is an easy dessert and combining these two types of protein-rich foods is an easy way to boost your intake on the cheap.
#14 Cottage cheese
A bodybuilding classic, cottage cheese is a liquid cheese of unbelievable nutritional value.
It’s not the most exciting food in the world, but it does come with great value for money. You can get a case of 6 cottage cheese tubs for a handful of dollars. You get dozens of grams of protein per tub and it can be used in a variety of meals.
If you’re ready to deal with the unusual texture and taste of cottage cheese, it’s a key to getting jacked on a budget!
Offal is underrated – liver is one of the best, most nutrient-dense animal foods on the market.
Liver contains huge quantities of a number of key vitamins, is high in protein, and you can get it relatively cheap. This is also true of heart and kidney – two other unpopular foods.
These are easy to get at your local butchers or market, and they’re some of the cheapest foods on a cost-nutrient basis. Because they’re relatively unpopular, they’re usually very cheap and provide tons of hard-to-find nutrients!
#16 Tinned fish
Whether its sardines or tuna, you can get a lot of protein from tinned fish without the huge price tag of salmon.
These tinned fish foods are a great way of saving money on your weekly protein food shop. They’re some of the best foods for gaining muscle on a budget. Despite being some of the best protein sources – especially when we talk cheap protein – you should eat them 1-2 times a week as these fish can contain a lot of mercury.
With a balanced diet and good variety, you can make tinned fish work for you, your diet and your budget!
#17 Canned meats
Much like tinned fish, canned meats are much cheaper than their fresh counterparts.
While canned chicken, turkey and beef aren’t often considered to be the best, they’re much cheaper and can make a serious difference to your diet. You can buy cans of chicken in white sauce (for example) relatively cheap but this is still the same chicken breast that contains dozens of grams of protein.
Get familiar with your local canned meats aisle if you feel like big savings on protein-rich foods.
These peas provide another example of plant foods that provide plenty of protein.
Edamame are rich in protein – hence their use as the source for pea protein supplements – and are relatively cheap. If you buy them by themselves (rather than as part of sushi or other meals), these peas are relatively cheap and make a great snack all by themselves.
With a light salting, as part of a balanced diet, they can be a delicious source of protein – even on the go!
Despite being less popular than peanuts, almonds are a superior protein and fat source. They contain more protein than other, popular forms of nuts and are very filling. This makes them a great food source for those looking to add a protein-rich snack food.
Flaked almonds are cheap, easy to use, and provide around 6g per ounce. These are respectable values – especially for a food that you can buy for a dollar or two in some stores.
#20 Sunflower seeds
Sunflowers seeds are our favourites – they’re an easy and versatile food but come with all the high-quality fats and proteins you might expect from the plant equivalent of an egg.
Designed with all the protein and fats a fledgling shoot might need, they provide a fantastic array of macros and micros for your diet. You can buy a bunch of sunflower seeds relatively cheap, but they’re a filling and nutrient-dense food for improving your diet.
#21 Wheat bran
Wheat bran is underrated. While it’s not the most exciting food, it has two of the most important ingredients around: dietary fiber and protein. With half a dozen grams of both per serving, it’s an easy addition to your diet that can improve both metabolic and digestive health.
The beauty of wheat bran is that it’s also a fine powder, which makes it a great addition to your diet in a number of ways from baking to mixing into your breakfast. Versatile and one of the cheapest forms of protein. We love bran.
#22 Hard cheeses (e.g. swiss)
Hard cheeses are a great place to start for delicious protein-rich food sources.
Cheese is a great part of many foods, and hard cheeses (e.g. Swiss) are high in protein compared to their regular counterparts. While they’re not going to be the same as melted cheese on your fries, they’re a great way of adding some familiar savoury delights to your diet and a cheap protein source.
Obviously, there are some very expensive cheeses out there. Avoid those, shoot for the nutritional info, and just put faith in these cheaper cheese options.
While it’s a bit of a cliché at this point, milk is one of the easiest ways to get cheap protein into your diet.
While some diet plans recommend a gallon of milk a day, most people only need to drink a half-pint or so to get an extra dozen grams of protein into their diet. This is easy when you look at the cost of a gallon jug of milk.
On a per-gram basis, milk is one of the cheapest protein sources on the market. It’s not technically a protein rich food – but it’s a great protein rich drink!
If you’re on a budget and you need to improve your protein intake, these are some of the easiest, cheapest high-protein foods you might want to look at.
You need to balance your dietary protein with other aspects – like your overall calorie intake and personal goals – but making a few switches in your diet can improve your muscle growth and keep your savings safe.
There’s not a lot of money in hard training, but if you’re an enthusiast and you want to get into better shape or improve performance, these cheap protein-rich foods might just make the difference in your diet and recovery!
Professional sport/fitness writer
Professional sport/fitness writer, Weightlifter, S&C enthusiast. Liam wears many hats, but they’re unified by a love for competition, performance, and engaging writing. You can throw abuse (and questions) his way at ApexContent.Org.