How to Meal Prep for Weight Gain

Nutrition Coach’s Guide to Eating for Muscle Gain

By: Jeremy Fox, CNC, CPTPublished: February 14, 2023

Not eating enough is the main reason people struggle to gain weight and build muscle. And the biggest driver behind that is the difficulty of cooking all those meals!

But meal prep for weight gain doesn’t have to be that hard. I’ve boiled it down to 7 basic steps so you have an easy-to-follow process for bulking up.

In addition, you’ll get my top tips for weight gain meal prep. After reading this guide, you’ll be ready to hit the grocery store and start seeing gains in the first week.

Meal Prep for Weight Gain

Meal Prep Defined

Cooking meals in advance (also called meal prep) is a strategy used by bodybuilders and athletes to make eating healthy easier.

Some fitness fanatics prepare every single meal for the next seven days. However, you don’t have to be that proactive to see results.

Even preparing your main meals for the next day can be a considerable step in diet adherence. And meal prepping for a few days in advance balances efficiency and flexibility.

Does meal prep help you gain weight?

It’s important to understand that meal prep alone doesn’t make you gain weight automatically. To gain weight, the first thing you must do is eat more calories than you burn.

But hitting this calorie surplus can be challenging, especially for active individuals. And meal prep is a valuable tool to ensure you eat enough to gain weight.

Reasons to Meal Prep for Weight Gain

The main benefit of meal prepping is convenience because you don’t have to cook every meal from scratch. It’s so much easier to just grab a pre-cooked meal from the fridge and pop it in the microwave.

Moreover, meal prep takes care of your calories and macros in advance. So you don’t have to worry about counting calories or tracking macros on a daily basis.

This meal structure, in turn, promotes diet adherence and healthy eating habits. Finally, eating the right quantity of healthy foods is the biggest key to building the body you want.

Benefits of Meal Prep for Weight Gain

  1. Drastically reduce time spent cooking
  2. Makes it easier to eat more calories
  3. Ensure you hit your macros each day
  4. Reduce the need to count or track foods daily
  5. Have nutritious meals you can take to work
  6. Promote diet adherence and healthy eating habits

Meal Prep for Weight Gain FAQ

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of meal prep for weight gain, let me answer the most common questions related to this topic.

What is the cheapest way to gain weight?

In some ways, the cheapest way to gain weight is to eat fast food every day. However, that approach will quickly make you fat and destroy your health in no time.

Therefore, the cheapest way to gain weight in a healthy way is by meal prepping. Also, eating healthy isn’t as expensive as you might think.

The reason meal prep saves money is that you can buy foods in bulk. And you can stretch your budget further by buying cheap healthy foods like rice, potatoes, and lean ground meat.

Do I need to prepare full meals?

The phrase “meal prep” often conjures up images of 20-something meal prep containers with identical foods. But the truth is, meal prep doesn’t need to be that strict or rigid.

In fact, it’s usually better to think of meal prep in terms of induvial ingredients instead of full meals. That means even cooking one ingredient for multiple meals could be considered meal prep.

How many meals should I prep at once?

The ideal number of meals to prep in advance depends on your schedule and your preferences.

For example, you may benefit from cooking a week’s worth of meals if you have a super busy work schedule with virtually no time to cook.

On the flip side, you might prefer cooking every other day to keep your meals fresh and allow more options to change your foods and macros.

Generally, I recommend meal prepping at least some of your foods for the next 2-5 days. This frequency reduces time in the kitchen without making you eat the same leftovers every day.

How do I meal prep to gain weight?

If you want to meal prep to gain weight, the main point is to prepare more calories than you burn daily. Also, make sure you include a lean protein source with each meal to help your body rebuild after resistance training workouts.

Finally, use starchy carbs to fuel your workouts and promote recovery afterward. Now let’s get into the specific details about how to meal prep for weight gain.

How to Meal Prep for Weight Gain

Meal prepping for building muscle is a process that involves a little bit of math and some thinking ahead. But it doesn’t have to be overly complicated!

I’ve broken weight gain meal prep into seven basic steps to show you how simple it can be.

7 Steps of Weight Gain Meal Prep

  1. Estimating calories
  2. Calculating macros
  3. Planning schedule
  4. Getting groceries
  5. Cooking food
  6. Dividing into meals
  7. Eating to grow!

Step 1: Estimating Your Calorie Needs

You need to know three things to estimate how many calories you need to eat to gain weight.

First, how many calories you burn at rest, also called your resting or base metabolic rate (BMR). Second, how many calories you burn from normal daily activities. And third, how many calories you burn through exercise.

When added together, these calories burned are called your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). And to gain weight, you need to eat at least 15% more calories than you burn.

Nowadays, many wearable fitness devices measure your movement and help you estimate your daily energy expenditure. I’ve utilized the Apple Watch, Oura Ring, and Polar heart rate monitor for measuring activity.

Meal Prep for Weight Gain Calories

Step 2: Calculating Your Macros

Once you know your calorie target, you can easily find your macros as a percentage of calories.

It’s generally a good idea to get around 50% of your calories from carbs when you’re active and trying to gain weight. And a protein target of 30% of your calories is ideal for gaining muscle, which leaves 20% fat.

Weight Gain Macro Ratio: 50% Carbs, 30% Protein, 20% Fat

To illustrate, let’s say you burn 2,500 calories per day. And you are aiming for a 20% calorie surplus to gain weight. So you must eat 2,500 x 1.2 = 3,000 calories per day.

To calculate 50% carbohydrates, we take 3,000 x 0.5 = 1,500 calories. And since there are 4 calories per gram of carbs that is 1,500 ÷ 4 = 375 grams of carbs.

Similarly, 30% protein is 3,000 x 0.3 = 900 calories. Protein also has 4 calories per gram, which is 900 ÷ 4 = 225 grams of protein.

Finally, 20% fat would be 3,000 x 0.2 = 600 calories. But there are 9 calories per gram of fat, so that’s 600 ÷ 9 = 67 grams of fat.

Keep in mind these numbers will vary based on your body size, activity level, and fitness goals.

Try My Free Macro Calculator to Find Your Weight Gain Macros

Meal Prep for Weight Gain Macros

Step 3: Planning Your Meal Prep Schedule

The last planning step involves thinking about the kinds of healthy meals you want to eat. This will help you in creating your grocery list in the next step.

First, figure out how many meals you will eat daily to hit your macros. This is somewhat up to your personal preference, but generally, 6-8 daily meals is best when bulking up.

In addition, try to spread out your protein with anywhere from 25-50 grams per meal. And include more carbs in the meals around your workout, but try not to exceed 100 grams in any single meal.

I recommend writing down your daily schedule with macros and calories for each meal. This daily meal plan makes it easy to see which foods to include in each meal and how much you’ll need.

Step 4: Getting Groceries

Now it’s time to take action and head to the grocery store to get the foods for your weight gain meal prep.

Choose a couple of different protein sources, such as chicken breast, eggs, yogurt, or lean ground beef. Then select some starchy carbs like rice, oats, or potatoes. Finally, include healthy fats in the form of cooking oil.

I recommend making a list to ensure you don’t forget anything. Click here for a healthy grocery list you can pull up on your phone.

Also, it’s usually better to buy a little more than you think you’ll need so you don’t run out of food. Of course, you can always freeze extra meat or save carbs the following week.

Meal Prep for Weight Gain Grocery List

Step 5: Cooking Food

Next is the figurative bread and butter of meal prep; the cooking. Depending on your schedule, you may need to dedicate an hour or two to this step.

However, you don’t need to overwhelm yourself with cooking master chef meals. Instead, focus on a few ingredients with simple preparation.

Before cooking, allocate the quantity of each food using a food scale, measuring cups, or the amounts indicated on the packaging.

For example, you would typically measure dry rice in cups and potatoes in ounces. Meats are generally weighed in ounces before cooking. And veggies by ounces or cups.

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Weight Gain Meal Prep Service

Step 6: Dividing Up Your Meals

Once cooking is done, it’s time to divide up the meals into portions to eat later. Again, you can weigh each ingredient or separate them based on pre-cooked weights.

For instance, if you cooked 24 ounces of chicken breasts, you may divide that into four portions of 6 oz each by eyeballing equal amounts into your meal prep containers.

You can do the same with the carbs and veggies to get complete meals, including protein, starchy carbs, fibrous carbs, and fat.

Lastly, put your prepped meals in the refrigerator to keep them fresh for the coming days.

Step 7: Eating to Grow

Finally, it’s time to reap the rewards of meal planning and prepping. Pull your meals out of the fridge and heat them up as needed throughout the day.

Remember, though, that meal prepping on its own won’t automatically get you to your fitness goals. And you must follow your meal plan to ensure you hit your daily calorie and macro targets.

That means getting enough calories from ideal macros and eating meals every couple of hours throughout the day.

Weight Gain Meal Prep Tips

The weight gain meal prep process is pretty straightforward. But many small details could trip you up. So here are some additional meal prep tips.

How to Hit Your Macros

Formulating meals that fit your macros is probably the trickiest part of meal prep for weight gain. Not only do you need to hit your daily targets, but each meal should also be optimized.

To keep track of your macros, I recommend using a free calorie-counting app like MyFitnessPal. You can enter foods and verify your meals hit your targets in a few minutes a day.

After you get into a routine, you don’t necessarily have to keep tracking. But I still like to do it to hold myself accountable and ensure continual progress.

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Find a Frequency That Works for Your Schedule

As I mentioned, some people like to meal prep for the entire week. And there’s nothing wrong with this approach.

However, many of you might find that to be too daunting of a task each week, which could lead you to fall off the meal prep wagon and miss your goal.

For this reason, I recommend starting with meal prepping for just one day ahead. Then build your way up to 2, 3, 4, or more days as needed.

In addition, you don’t have to meal prep every ingredient at the same time. For example, you could cook all your meat one day and do carbs every day or every other day.

I’ve found that meat takes the most prep time. So I try to cook enough meat to last for at least two days or more.

By comparison, cooking rice in a rice cooker only takes a couple of minutes of prep time. And if you like your rice fresh and fluffy, you could prep it daily for one or more meals.

Therefore, meal prep doesn’t have to be a singular event. The real purpose is to make your life easier, so cook however often you see fit!

Measuring Made Simple

When measuring your food, you don’t need to obsess over every gram. And there are some simple tricks to cut down on time spent measuring and weighing.

One such trick is buying meat packages with weights that are easily divided into portion sizes. For example, you could buy a package of chicken weighing as close as possible to 2.00 lbs.

Then you can divide the chicken into equal servings without weighing or measuring anything. Like four servings of 8 oz each or eight servings of 4 oz each.

Another trick is weighing your protein source after cooking. This eliminates the need to get your hands dirty with raw meat.

However, the key here is that meat loses about 25% of its weight after cooking due to water evaporation. So you have to divide by 0.75 to get the pre-cooked equivalent. Like 3 oz of cooked chicken would equal 4 oz of raw chicken.

Meal Prep for Weight Gain Chicken Breast

Best Cooking Methods

The best cooking method for you is one you’re comfortable with and enjoy. But be aware of the pros and cons of various cooking options.

Grilling

For example, grilling is the best way to cook large quantities of meat. And you can even throw potatoes and veggies on at the same time.

However, it’s also easier to overcook meat on the grill, which could make it super dry later in the week. I’ve found that a pellet cooker works best for maximizing quantity without drying things out.

Stove Top / Oven

The oven is another go-to cooking method because it’s multifunctional, and nearly everybody has one.

Also, sauteing meat on the stovetop in cooking oil keeps it moist. And you can even mix in veggies to create a stir fry.

On the downside, you’re limited to a smaller number of meals based on the size of your pot or pan.

The oven is perfect for baked chicken breast or potatoes and is super easy to use. The only drawback is that it can take a little longer than other methods.

Rice Cooker / Pressure Cooker

And for cooking carbs, investing in a rice cooker or instant pot is definitely worth it. These appliances save time and cook to perfection every time.

In addition, these cookers typically come with a basket for steaming veggies while you cook rice or other foods. So they can save time by combining foods as well.

Related: Tasty and Nutritious Bone Broth Rice Recipe

Meal Prep for Weight Gain Rice
Microwave

The microwave is often relegated to cooking frozen dinners or reheating leftovers. But this convenient appliance can be part of your meal prep cooking arsenal.

In fact, steaming a bag of frozen veggies in the microwave may offer more nutrients than sauteing fresh veggies on the stovetop! The reason is that flash-freezing preserves vitamins.

In addition, steaming veggies in the microwave only takes about 5 minutes, so it requires minimal effort and doesn’t add time to your meal prep routine.

I also use the microwave for cooking protein oatmeal in minutes.

Not Every Meal Has to Be Prepped

My last tip is that you don’t have to prep every meal in advance. For example, I typically prep 2-3 of my 7 daily meals.

Other “meals” consist of ready-to-eat foods, protein bars, shakes, or simple smoothies. This approach makes meal prep more realistic and easier to follow.

11 Weight Gain Shake Recipes

Shakes are probably the easiest way to boost your calorie intake. And simple smoothies are an excellent option for getting more nutrients.

Not to mention, these liquid meals take only seconds to make. That’s why I recommend using shakes or smoothies for one or two of your daily meals.

Click here to see 11 of my favorite weight gain shake recipes.

Meal Prep for Weight Gain Shakes

Now you know enough to get started meal prepping to gain weight. But don’t stop learning now! Check out these other informative articles on fitness-related topics.

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