The recipe for achieving your goal physique is simple enough. Take one well-made training program and stick with it, mix in some high-quality rest and recovery, and, most importantly, eat the right foods in the right amounts.
That said, what sounds easy on paper isn’t nearly as simple in practice, as not everyone has the time or luxury of cooking and calibrating every meal for optimal performance. As a result, meal prepping has soared in popularity among fitness enthusiasts as a way of circumventing the time (and money) required to craft meals on the spot.
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. It’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before beginning a new fitness, nutritional, and/or supplement routine. None of these diets are meant to treat or cure any disease. If you feel you may be deficient in a particular nutrient or nutrients, please seek out a medical professional.
Let’s break down all the ingredients that make up meal prepping as a practice so you can figure out if it can help you reach your goals a little faster.
What is Meal Prep?
Instead of preparing each meal right before consumption from scratch, meal prep enthusiasts carve out some time each week to cook en masse, calibrate their meals to align with their required macronutrient needs, and store it all for the coming week. Meal prep for bodybuilding or physique-focused training simply turns the nutrition aspect into something more grab-and-go (after some initial time in the kitchen).
Benefits of Meal Prepping
Having your week’s nutrition boxed up by Sunday night may be good enough on its own to convince you to try out meal prep. However, there are some less-obvious benefits to going big in the kitchen that can positively influence how you feel — and look — in the gym.
Meals at Your Convenience
This is the biggest and most obvious benefit of becoming a prepping professional. If you’re constantly on the go, need to get your workouts in quickly, or travel a lot for work, there may just not be time left in the day to cook nutritious, whole-food-centric meals from scratch.
While pre-prepped meals may not always be as satisfying or savory as something fresh out of the pan, meal prep is unparalleled in its convenience and accessibility. There’s no better way to hit your macros in less time.
Get Your Macros In
Whether you’re cutting down or bulking up, your nutritional benchmarks are precise, so your intake needs to be as well. It can be tempting while in the kitchen cooking from scratch to not measure every pour or scoop, but meal preppers only have to get the doses right once. Prepping large quantities of food in advance and dividing them into equal portions ensures you’ve got your caloric needs tightly laced up each time.
After a long day in the office or a grueling leg workout at the gym, the prospect of having to head home and prepare a meal from scratch might have you eyeballing the drive-thru, much to the detriment of your diet goals.
Portion control through having a weighed-and-measured meal waiting for you may help stave off junk food cravings and keep you on track with your diet when you otherwise might have gone off-plan if you had to cook something while already hungry. (1)
Meal timing is a historically contentious topic in sports nutrition. Bodybuilding magazines have espoused the dogma of six or more meals per day to “stoke the metabolic fire” for years, while the recent emergence of practices like intermittent fasting takes things far in the other direction. With that in mind, most modern literature has arrived at the conclusion that meal frequency is less important than total daily intake. (2)
However, meal timing can affect biological responses like cravings, blood sugar, mood, or even performance in the gym. (3)(4) Determining how you respond to different meal timings and frequencies is an individual process, but the bottom line is that meal prepping can help you get your calories in exactly when they benefit you the most.
Mastering Your Macros
Meal prep is essentially a meticulous method of counting calories, and if you’re counting calories, you’re tracking your macros — whether you know it or not. A tightly-sealed package of chicken and rice looks great at a glance, but if the proportions of the big three macronutrients — protein, carbohydrate, and fat — aren’t aligned with your fitness goals, meal prep isn’t doing a lot for you.
One of the most heavily discussed aspects of nutrition, dietary protein is commonly and rightly referred to as the “building blocks” of muscle tissue. Since most gym rats need heaping portions on a daily basis to maintain and build muscle, a reliable protein calculator can help determine how much should go into each of your pre-packaged meals.
In simple terms, carbohydrate serves as the fuel source for performance in the gym. From walking up the stairs to the weight room to pulling a new deadlift personal record, carbs fuel your engine when dosed properly. Unless you’re a devoted practitioner of a ketogenic diet, your meal prep should probably include some tasty carbohydrates in each serving.
Dietary fat tends to catch a bad rep in the fitness world, partly because of its name. It is both completely distinct from body fat and completely essential to healthy bodily function both in and out of the gym. While limiting fat intake may be wise in certain cases, most lifters will want the right amount of fat incorporated into their meal prep macros.
But how much — or how little — is the right amount? Whether it is fat or the other two macronutrients, getting them in the correct proportions can enhance your fat loss, improve your function in the gym, and enable you to stay on track with your diet. You can jump into our macronutrient calculator below to find out exactly how much of each macro you need:
How to Meal Prep for Bodybuilding
If you’ve always wanted to make your whole week’s nutrition airtight in advance, you’re in the right place. Meal prepping may look like a complex or intimidating process from the outside, but we can break it all down step-by-step to help you level up your diet game.
Step 1 — Plan and Purchase
An important early consideration is that once you’ve prepped your weekly meals, you’re stuck with them. Plain rice and grilled chicken is a bodybuilder’s bread and butter, but it might not be so appetizing on the eighth portion of the week. Buying in bulk is also generally more economical — so figure out what you like to eat and buy a lot of it.
For a balanced meal, include a source of high-quality protein at each meal, add in a carbohydrate source, and make sure you’re getting some fruits and vegetables as well.
Protein Sources for Meal Prep
- Chicken breast
- Ground beef
- Hard-boiled eggs
Carbohydrates for Meal Prep
- Brown rice
- Sweet potatoes
- Whole wheat pasta
Vegetables for Meal Prep
- Green beans
- Brussels sprouts
Step 2 — Prep It Up
Once you’ve assembled your grocery list, the next step is to get to cooking. Make sure you’ve selected foods and cooking methods that hold up well to multiple days of storage. Be cautious about using lots of oil or sauces, as they may not sit well in a container with protein or leafy greens.
A few helpful tips for the culinary tornado that is about to blow through your kitchen — first, get good at multitasking. You can bake your chicken breast while steaming your veggies, there’s no need to do things one at a time. And if you own a rice cooker, then you can run that while everything else is heating up.
Second, get organized ahead of time. You can shave many, many minutes off your time in the kitchen if your kitchen is clean, your knives are sharp, your proteins are trimmed, and your veggies are chopped before you fire up the oven.
Third, and perhaps most important of all, make it fun. There’s no need to slave and toil away in silence. Meal prep can be a time to plan out your week’s workouts, throw on your favorite Netflix show, catch up on a good podcast, or even smash a quick at-home workout while your food is in the oven or crockpot.
Step 3 — Measure Twice, Prep Once
Once you’ve put your culinary skills to work in the kitchen, break out the food scale and a reliable calculator. If you picked up enough whole foods to partition across all your weekly meals, some simple arithmetic should ensure you have consistent amounts of protein, carbohydrates, and vegetables in each container.
Once everything is divided and boxed up, it is helpful to label each container with the total calories and macronutrient breakdown, even if all your meals are the same. Once you’ve cleaned up and your meals are safely tucked away in the fridge or freezer, you’re set for the week.
Divide up your food into a number of meal packages, ensuring you have healthy portions of protein, carbohydrates, fat, and calories in each meal.
What to Consider Before Starting Meal Prep
Whether you’re a competitive bodybuilder or recreational gym rat, meal prepping might seem like a no-brainer. After all, articulate control of every aspect of nutrition and training is essential for long-term physique development. Before you bite the proverbial bullet, there are some considerations.
The nature of meal prep is both a tremendous asset and a potential liability depending on your relationship with food. Since you can only really prepare so many unique meals at a time, there’s a good chance that it gets boring or tiresome eventually.
If you need full control over your nutrition to feel sane, meal prep is right up your alley — but the repetitious eating may end up threatening your sanity in a different way.
You might find success in breaking up meal prep monotony by picking different “themes” each week, provided your calorie and macro needs can make it work. Try Mexican food one week, Greek the next — there’s a lot of options out there.
There’s no question that meal prep is a time-saver overall. However, cooking in bulk does require a lot of time in the kitchen in one day — it is not uncommon to devote an entire Sunday afternoon to cooking and cleanup. If you’re already quick with the skillet and can whip up meals in a flash, several hours of preparation all at once may not end up being that efficient.
Perhaps the most important point of all is that effective meal prep requires diligence. For physique aficionados, this should be familiar territory, as anyone dedicated to their game in the gym knows how important it is to measure everything from their portions to the plates on the barbell. But meal prep for bodybuilders only works if everything is properly accounted for, so make sure you’re committed to counting it all properly before you get to work in the kitchen.
The Whole Plate
What the average person may call an obsession, people who pay their dues in the gym regularly would simply call dedication. This goes doubly for nutrition — if you have high aspirations for your body, going the extra mile in the kitchen as well as the weight room just makes sense.
Meal prepping isn’t for everyone, but if you’re constrained for time, dedicated to making the Olympia stage, or just want to be more meticulous about how you approach your diet, it might be worth giving it a shot.
- Duffey, K. J., & Popkin, B. M. (2011). Energy density, portion size, and eating occasions: contributions to increased energy intake in the United States, 1977-2006. PLoS medicine, 8(6), e1001050.
- Verboeket-van de Venne, W. P., & Westerterp, K. R. (1993). Frequency of feeding, weight reduction and energy metabolism. International journal of obesity and related metabolic disorders : journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 17(1), 31–36.
- Leidy, H. J., & Campbell, W. W. (2011). The effect of eating frequency on appetite control and food intake: brief synopsis of controlled feeding studies. The Journal of nutrition, 141(1), 154–157.
- Kahleova, H., Lloren, J. I., Mashchak, A., Hill, M., & Fraser, G. E. (2017). Meal Frequency and Timing Are Associated with Changes in Body Mass Index in Adventist Health Study 2. The Journal of nutrition, 147(9), 1722–1728.
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