The Beginner's Guide to Bodybuilding Meal Prep and Nutrition
Here's everything you need to know about bodybuilding meal prep, recipes, and nutrition—even if you're not a bodybuilder.
If you've ever met a competitive bodybuilder—or hey, just scrolled through a bikini-clad athlete's Instagram feed—you probably won't be surprised to learn that they score their muscular, lean bods through a combo of regimented exercise and nutrition. (BTW: Here's How to Train for a Female BodyBuilding Competition)
To stick with a regimented bodybuilding diet, meal-prepping is key. (You know how it goes: When you prep healthy food ahead, you're less likely to hit up Chipotle on the way home or attack a jar of peanut butter when you're hangry post-workout.)
Whether you're a medaled athlete, wanna-be bodybuilder, or just a nutrition voyeur, this how-to guide for bodybuilding meal prep might be useful. Plus, some of the bodybuilding meal prep recipes will make you drool. (Hint: it's not *just* chicken and rice.)
The Basics: Bodybuilding Nutrition
Bodybuilding doesn't have a one-size-fits-all nutrition plan that athletes need to follow. However, most bodybuilding nutrition programs combine a calorie counting diet with the macro diet (also known as the 'If It Fits Your Macros' or 'IFYM' diet), says Paige Johnson, a bodybuilding prep nutritionist with The Diet Doc with nutrition certifications from Precision Nutrition and the National Academy of Metabolic Sciences.
Calorie counting requires tracking your calories so that you keep close tabs on exactly how much you're eating each day. Counting macronutrients (macros for short) is about making sure a certain percentage of your total calories come from each of the three macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fat.
"The exact percentage of macros will vary person to person, but most programs require a high percentage of carbs, a moderate percentage of protein, and a low to moderate percentage of fat," explains Evan Eaton, a nutrition expert with Nutrishop in Boca Raton, Florida.
Sound complicated? That's why most athletes hire a coach or nutritionist to help them figure out what their calorie count and macronutrient breakdown should be throughout all stages of prep, says bodybuilder Natalie Matthews, IFBB Bikini Pro and founder of Fit Vegan Chef.
ICYDK, most bodybuilders follow "bulking" and "cutting" seasons, during which they're more focused on building muscle (and usually eating extra calories) or losing fat (usually cutting calories). Some coaches also recommend nutrient timing, which is when you strategically consume carbs to help energize pre-workout or replenish glycogen stores post-workout.
That said, it is possible to DIY. So, if you're looking to do your own bodybuilding meal prep and nutrition, get ready to roll up your sleeves.
How to Determine Your Calorie and Macro Goals
1. Find your Total Daily Energy Expenditure.
The first step is to figure out your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE), according to Anthony Balduzzi, N.M.D., founder of The Fit Father Project: "This is a close estimation of the number of calories you burn each day based on your height, weight, age, and activity level." To find that value, use an online calculator like this one or this one. (Here: 10 Things You Didn't Know About Calories).
2. Adjust based on whether you're bulking or cutting.
If your goal is to lose weight and fat (cutting), you'll need to eat fewer calories than your TDEE number, explains Dr. Balduzzi. "But if you're looking to gain weight or muscle, you'll need to eat slightly more calories." Add or subtract 250-500 calories to/from your TDEE to find your daily target calorie intake (DTCI). (Related: Everything You Need to Know About Building Muscle and Burning Fat).
3. Figure out your macros.
You can do a bunch of math to figure out exactly how many grams of carbs, proteins, and fats you should aim to eat each day (kudos!)—or you could just plug it into a macro calculator. Try one of these:
How to Meal Prep, Bodybuilding Style
The premise of a bodybuilding meal plan is that you can eat whatever foods you want, as long as you don't go over your allotted calories and hit the right ratio of the three macros. (P.S. this eating style can also be called "flexible dieting.")
Meal prep can hugely help you stick to a bodybuilding diet. "It's so much easier to go off track and make poor food choices when you fail to meal prep," explains Eaton. That's why he and Johnson recommend allotting one time during the week to prep.
1. Get your tools.
A tracking app like MyFitnessPal and Lose It! make it easy to select and track foods, by tallying up the calories and macros you've consumed. Plus, they'll help you learn which foods contain carbs, proteins, and fats. (Related: The Best Weight Loss Apps That Are Totally Free).
You may also want a kitchen scale (which will help you measure food more accurately vs. just eyeballing portion sizes) and some solid meal prep containers to store your food.
2. Plan and purchase food.
Next up: Grocery shopping. "In each of the categories—proteins, carbs, and fats—plan three to five main foods you're going eat for the week. Then make a list of veggies," says Balduzzi. He calls these "go-to" foods, and these will make up the lion's share of your meals for the week ahead. (If this is your first time meal prepping, read up on these meal-prep mistakes to avoid.)
When picking your veggies, "make sure there's a variety of color because the colors represent vitamins and minerals," says Matthews. "This will help keep you from having a nutrient deficiency and will keep you from getting bored." (P.S. Yes, you can be a vegan bodybuilder.)
Use some of the below examples to great your bodybuilding meal prep grocery list.
Omnivorous proteins: chicken, turkey, beef, salmon, eggs, canned tuna or sardines,
Plant-based proteins: quinoa, beans, tofu, textured vegetable protein, tempeh, beans, vegan protein powder
Healthy fats: avocado, coconut oil, nuts, Greek yogurt, cheese, seeds
Healthy carbs: quinoa, rice, mixed berries, oatmeal, sweet potato, Ezekiel bread, couscous
Veggies: kale, peppers, spinach, tomatoes, cucumbers, salad mix
Spices/Condiments: hot sauce, basil, Balsamic vinaigrette, nutritional yeast, garlic, salt, pepper, lemon
3. Prep basic food.
Meal prep can help you stay on track, but only if you eat what you actually cooked. Enter: variety. Instead of making things like stews, curries, and stir-fries that will require you to eat the exact same thing for five days straight, prep foods that can be combined in different ways, says Monica Auslander Moreno, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., nutrition consultant for RSP Nutrition. (Related: 20 Thoughts You Most Definitely Have While Meal Prepping)
Your plan of action: Pop your go-to protein (topped with some spices) into the oven, and let it bake. "Go ahead and bake your vegetables at the same time," says Balduzzi. Then, use a rice cooker or the stove-top to cook your carbs with a few button presses. Simultaneously steam any veggies you'd like to have on hand, and boil your eggs.
"When everything is cooked, store each ingredient in separate containers that you'll be able to grab from throughout the week," suggests Balduzzi.
4. Assemble your eats.
Now that all your foods are cooked, and your fridge is stocked, all you have to do is take out those containers and combine the foods in different ways at meal time.
"Keep it simple by filling about half of your plate with any veggies, fill one-fourth of your plate with protein, and the final bit with a healthy carb," says Balduzzi. "If your macros are different, the portions will change, but this is a good starting place."
More helpful tips and bodybuilding meal prep ideas:
A Day of BodyBuilding Meal Prep Ideas
To reiterate: no one's meal plan will look the same. The bodybuilding meal prep ideas from Moreno and Balduzzi below may not work with your plan, but they might be a good way to get your creative culinary juices flowing.
Breakfast: Make some overnight oats with cashew butter, ground flaxseed, nut milk or dairy milk, and chia seeds OR pancakes made with almond flour, nut milk or dairy milk, olive oil, pureed fruits/spinach, baking powder, and cinnamon (for extra protein, you can add a scoop of protein powder).
Lunch: Throw one of your proteins onto a side salad made with diced cucumber, tomato, avocado, a squirt of lemon, salt, and vinegar, then pair with a go-to carb like a sweet potato OR combine canned salmon with avocado, Greek yogurt, and avocado mayo for instant, no-bake high-protein meal, and add to a bed of spinach. (Want more ideas? Scope these meal-prep ideas that aren't sad chicken and rice.)
Dinner: Toss together a big salad with one cup organic quinoa, avocado, and top it with tofu, tempeh, or chicken OR combine similar ingredients into a burrito, sandwich wrap, or deconstructed burrito to change it up. (You might also try this Pistachio-Crusted Tilapia, this Miso-Lime Salmon with Couscous, Broccoli, and Peppers, or this Spinach Turkey Feta Burger.)
Bodybuilding Meal Prep Delivery Services
Tried meal prepping and just can't hash it every week? Luckily, with the rise of meal kit delivery services like Blue Apron and HelloFresh also came bodybuilding meal prep delivery companies. The ones below can deliver cooked and prepped meals—tailored to your goals and diet—directly to your door.