There’s a reason this was Popeye’s go-to for muscle-building. Since there’s a ton of spinach packed into each can, you get more protein than going with fresh spinach (about six grams per cup). “I usually sauté canned spinach with olive oil, sea salt, and cracked pepper,” says Corey Peacock, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sports nutrition at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and head performance coach of the Blackzilians, Boca Raton’s mixed martial arts team.
Every single expert we spoke with recommended eggs. It’s easy to see why; each one packs six grams of protein, plus choline, a nutrient that’s necessary for cell creation.
Canned beans are cheap, but dried beans are crazy cheap. Each cup has about 15 grams of protein but just 220 calories. “Just combine beans with grains or other plant foods to complement the amino acids for maximum muscle building,” recommends Sonya Angelone, M.S., R.D.N., an Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson. The one-two punch will ensure your body gets all the amino acids it needs to optimize your muscle growth.
Research shows that consuming dairy proteins post-workout can aid in muscle-building. Calcium also helps with muscle function, notes Torey Armul, M.S., R.D., an Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson.
Research suggests that inorganic nitrate may help muscles function more efficiently—and beets are high in the nutrient, says Kristin Kirkpatrick, M.S., R.D., manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute.
6. Greek Yogurt
Since Greek yogurt is a more concentrated form of yogurt, it also contains a higher concentration of protein: 15 grams per cup. Prices for the dairy product have been on the decline, according to the USDA, but Armul recommends buying the store brand or looking for sales (one of the leading brands is almost always marked down) to make it even more affordable.
7. Cottage Cheese
Don’t knock it just because your grandma used to eat it. Cottage cheese is packed with even more protein than Greek yogurt, with a whopping 28 grams per cup. “It also contain calcium and probiotics, which provides digestive support,” says Armul.
8. Peanut Butter
This is one of the cheapest plant-based proteins you can get. Each two-tablespoon serving contains eight grams of protein, says Angelone, along with other nutrients like vitamin B6, magnesium, and fiber. Just make sure to look for varieties with only two ingredients: peanuts and salt.
9. Lean Ground Beef
This affordable staple is a great source of protein—you’ll get about 24 grams per four-ounce serving—and it’s also a good source of zinc, iron, and creatine. “Zinc and iron can speed up some of the chemicals and reactions responsible for muscle building, so it’s always a benefit to consume enough of each,” says Peacock. Creatine, meanwhile, helps reduce fatigue and increase exercise volume, which ultimately means more muscle mass for you.
10. Sunflower Seeds
These are filled with six grams of protein per ounce, and they’re easy to eat straight out of the bag or throw on a salad, says Angelone.
When they pack ’em in, like, well, sardines, you get more protein for your buck. Each tin has about 23 grams of the good stuff. They’re also a good source of healthy fats. “The omega-3 fatty acids found mainly in fish and fish oils supplements result in lower inflammation, and muscle building is usually associated with some inflammation (micro damage to the muscles followed by repair and muscle growth),” says Angelone. “If inflammation continues after exercise, it can adversely influence muscle soreness, tissue repair and growth. Omega-3 fats have also been shown to increase blood flow to muscles during exercise, decrease muscle soreness and swelling.”
Frozen bags of edamame are common at grocery stores these days and provide you with a budget plant-based protein (each cup contains about 18 grams). “In addition to protein, edamame has mono- and polyunsaturated fats, which are good for your heart, help absorb other fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, and K), and may help improve cholesterol levels,” says Armul.
Flavored tuna packets have helped make this high-protein snack more affordable and portable. Each three-ounce serving contains about 22 grams of protein, and “they also supply healthy fats to help fill you up,” says Armul.
Quinoa has reputation for being expensive, but its price has actually been on the decline recently. And with eight grams of protein per cup, quinoa beats other grains when it comes to muscle-building. “It’s a complete protein, so it contains all nine essential amino acids,” says Armul. “You can save money on quinoa by choosing the generic brand, buying from wholesale stores or buying in bulk,” she says. “It can also be cheaper to buy plain and flavor it yourself with basil, garlic and other herbs and spices.”
A cup of cooked asparagus has 4.5 grams of protein—more than what you’ll find in many veggies—but just 40 calories. “It’s also an excellent source of vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K and folate,” says Armul.