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Ultimate Guide to Meal Prep for Fitness Enthusiasts

December 12, 2020

For those of us who are living the fitness lifestyle, you know that nutrition is a huge component to reaching your fitness goals. Whether you are cutting or bulking, the goal is ultimately to look better and feel better. Unfortunately, training alone won't get the job done. If you have been hitting the gym hard and you are still not seeing results, it's time to take a look at your nutrition.

When it comes to living the fitness lifestyle having a proper diet is essential if you want to maximize your fitness. But hopping on the latest diet trends for a couple months before switching back to your old diet isn't the way to go. There is a more systematic way to make the right food choices over the long term. This is what this ultimate guide will teach you, how to meal prep effectively.

In this guide we will talk about what exactly meal prepping for fitness is and what it is not. We will go into detail on how to set fitness goals and how to use meal prepping to support you in reaching those fitness goals. We will talk about the different types of diets, what are the go to food choices, what foods to avoid, and when you should eat. We will talk about supplements and how they can help you fill gaps or optimize your nutrition. You will learn about the science of meal prep and have a systematic approach to selecting the right foods. You will learn about the composition of macro and micro nutrients and how understanding those concepts will help you make a more informed decision about your diet.

Irrespective of if you are a vegetarian, vegan, or a meat eater, this guide will address different ways in which you can meal prep and give you a blueprint that will help you create a sustainable meal plan. We will now dive more into the systematic approach to meal prepping.

What this guide is not.

This is not a fitness recipe book. This guide is more about the systematic approach to meal prepping. By the end of this guide you will have a better idea on how to identify what you should eat and what you shouldn't and how to eat to support your fitness goals through nutrition. 

Who will benefit the most from this Ultimate Guide

If you have been consistently hitting the gym hard and want to take a systematic approach to your nutrition, this guide is a must read. Meal prep works best if you are already training hard. If you are a couch potato or you have no time to train, meal prepping will only help you marginally. To get the most from this guide, you should commit to training consistently first.

Let us get started.

What is meal prep?

In the simplest of definition, Meal prep is the act of preparing your meals. Typically in western cultures, people have 3 meals a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner,. However, in the scope of fitness, particularly bodybuilding, we need to go beyond the concept of breakfast, lunch and dinner because breakfast, lunch, and dinner are inherently time sensitive.

Meal timing can be important in some cases, but in all cases, the composition of the meal is the most important thing. This is why time sensitive meals are ineffective for fitness. Everyone's lifestyle is different and there's no such thing as a "one size fits all meal timing."

On the other hand, optimal food selecting strategies can be applied to anybody. Combine optimal food selection strategies with meal prepping, and you have a system that allows you to prepare/order meals that will help you reach your fitness goal.

To understand more about meal prep, let us learn what it is NOT. 

What is meal prep NOT?

Some people think meal prepping is the act of preparing and storing food in containers so that you have something to eat in the future. This is NOT considered meal prepping. As shown in the meme below, just because you have food stored in containers does not mean its meal prep.   

  

Putting one slice of pizza into boxes is not meal prep. Putting things into lunch boxes is not meal prep. Just preparing is not meal prep. Aside from the physical act of cooking, there must be some kind of calculation of calories. For example, what protein source are you going to eat, carbohydrates are you going to eat, what fat sources are you going to eat. How many calories are you eating? If you don't know the answer to these questions, you're probably not meal prepping.

Another important component to fitness meal prepping is sustainability. If you cannot picture yourself eating meal prep for the next 5 years, then your meal prep system probably won't deliver optimal results because you cannot stick with it.

To sum things up:

  • Meal Prep is not putting things in containers
  • Meal Prep is not just preparing meals
  • Sustainability is a big component of successful meal prepping. 
  • Meal Prep is the act of calculating what you need to eat to reach a goal. What proteins are you going to eat, carbohydrates are you going to eat, what fat sources are you going to eat. Figuring that out, then having a fixed schedule to prepare your meals is the art of meal prep.
  • Meal prepping for fitness should be for the long term. Can you sustain this diet for weeks, months and maybe even years? If you can't it's time to revisit your plan.

How to start meal prepping?

The first question you need to ask when you are meal prepping is, What are you meal prepping for? It comes down to what your fitness goals are. In most cases, the goals are either weight gain, or weight loss.

Maintenance Calories

The first step to a weight gain meal prep is to find out your maintenance calorie. Maintenance calorie is the estimated amount of calories you need to eat daily to maintain your weight. This calculation takes into account your age, your height, your weight, your body fat percentage and your approximate TDEE which is your Total Daily Energy Expenditure. 

What is TDEE?  

Total Daily Energy Expenditure. As an example If you are a couch potato and you are sitting at your desk the whole day your TDEE will be very low.
If you are an athlete with a physical job, your TDEE is probably very high.

These calculations don't need to be 100% accurate but it gives you a starting point to calculate your maintenance calories.

Weight Gain Meal Prep

In order to gain weight, you need to eat more than your maintenance calorie (caloric surplus). A strategy to increase caloric surplus is choosing a  ˆœdry ˆ carbohydrate source. For example, rice is NOT a dry carb source because when you cook rice, it absorbs all the water and doubles/triples in size making it easy to get full. On the other hand, a  ˆœdry ˆ carb source like whole wheat pasta is a good choice for weight gain because the pasta doesn ˆ™t end up absorbing much water making the volume of the food less and easier to eat. Other examples of  ˆœdry ˆ carb sources include: cereals, granola, rice cakes etc ˆ¦

Weight Loss Meal Prep

To lose weight You need to eat less than your maintenance calorie. One of the strategies we use here at BLK BOX GYM is to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables because they are nutrient dense foods with very few calories compared to other foods.

Aside from being nutrient dense, fruits and vegetables are also  ˆœhigh volume. ˆ This means these foods take up a lot of space in your stomach, which gives you the feeling of being full without actually giving a lot of calories. Incorporating lots of fruits and vegetables into your diet can ease your weight loss journey.

What about Macronutrients?

Once you ˆ™ve decided whether you want to gain/maintain/lose weight, and you have calculated your target calorie based on your maintenance calories, it ˆ™s time to calculate your macros!


Finding out your Macronutrient Distribution

The three macronutrients are Proteins, Carbohydrates and Fats.

Below is the relationship between macronutrients and calories:

1 gram of protein = 4 calories
1 gram of carbs = 4 calories
1 gram of fat = 9 calories. 

Source: How Many Calories Are in 1 Gram of Fat, Carbs and Protein? by USDA

In a nutshell you get your calories from any source of food. You can eat 2500 calories at McDonalds, or eat 2500 calories of chicken, rice, broccoli. Simply hitting your calorie target is not optimum for reaching your fitness goal.

At BLK BOX GYM, we recommend the following ratios of macronutrients.

Protein:

0.9 - 1.2 gram per lb of body weight OR lean body mass. (use the second option if you have a BMI of 30 or more)

E.g: If you ˆ™re 180 pounds, you can eat 162-216 grams of protein per day.

Fats:

20-30% of your total calories

E.g: If your target calorie is 2000 per day, you can eat 400-600 calories or 44-67 grams of fat per day.

Carbohydrates:

After you've calculated your protein and fat intake, simply allot the remaining calories for carbohydrates to get your carb intake.

These macronutrient recommendations will work for most active people who are engaged in resistance training at least 3 times per week. This is because protein consumption needs to be higher in order to help your body recover from stressful resistance training. A higher protein consumption also keeps you full for longer which acts as a deterrent to snack on less desirable carbohydrates.

Fats are also very important because when your fat consumption is too low, it affects your ability to produce important hormones such as testosterone or insulin. Without these hormones working properly, your ability to maintain blood sugar and energy levels amongst many other things would be dramatically affected.


Once you have figured out your target calories and macronutrient distribution, you are already ahead of 99% of the population who just eat based on intuition and feeling.

In the next section we will compare common differences between people who meal prep and people who don't.

Difference between people who train and meal prep vs those who train and don't meal prep

For those who train optimally but do not meal prep, which is to say, they do not have a systematic way of eating and controlling their calories and macronutrient distribution. They are usually physically fit, but lack muscle definition and leanness. If you simply want to squat, bench, and deadlift a lot of weight, meal prep may not be your utmost priority. However, if you want 6 pack abs and clearly visible muscular definition, meal prepping is something you should not skip out on.

Simply paying attention to what you are eating will always have a positive impact on your overall fitness goals. Yes, paying attention to your strength/performance is also very important, How much are you bench pressing, etc, but in my opinion, focussing on both your training and nutrition will give you the best overall result.

What about supplements?

For most personal trainers, suggesting supplements is not exactly their field of expertise. What exact supplements to take and when to take are generally the roles of a nutritionist or a dietitian, especially when it comes to clients/patients with specific deficiencies.

Nevertheless, there are supplements that are almost unanimously agreed upon by trainers and dietitians alike because of the overwhelming research on their positive effects.

We recommend all our clients participating in our training programs to take the following supplements

Protein supplementation (whey protein, casein protein, vegan protein)
Multivitamin
Fish Oil
Creatine Monohydrate 

Irrespective of your fitness goals, BLK BOX GYM generally recommends these 4 supplements to their clients.


Protein supplement:

As said previously, protein is one of the most important macronutrients when it comes to fitness. However, sometimes it is hard to hit your protein target because protein food sources are generally not as readily available as other foods. A protein supplement would help a lot with this problem. For example, if you were missing thirty grams of protein and it ˆ™s close to bedtime, it ˆ™s much easier to throw a scoop of protein in a shaker and add water, then it is to cook up a raw chicken breast.
Protein supplements are not necessary but in our carbohydrate heavy culture, it can certainly help keep you on track.

Multivitamins/Vitamins:

Beyond achieving an impressive physique, it is just as important to maintain your overall health. In fact, these two things generally work in unison. Think about it, what is the point of building muscles to look good if you don ˆ™t feel good on the inside? Vitamins & minerals generally come from nutrient dense foods such as fruits or vegetables. Again, in our carbohydrate heavy culture, most people are lacking in their fruit/vegetable intake despite what they may think. Multivitamin/Vitamin supplements help you maintain a baseline level of micronutrient intake in order to keep you healthy while you pursue your fitness goals. 

Vegetables:

We know that vegetables are not a supplement, however, we recommend our clients to follow the 800 gram rule. That is, accumulate a total of 800 grams of fruits and vegetables in your diet daily. Try this and you will know if you are actually eating enough fruits & veggies.

Fish Oil:


Otherwise known as omega 3 fatty acids and DHA. One of the benefits of fish oil is its anti inflammatory benefits. Inflammation in joints and muscles can build up overtime, and intaking a steady supply of omega 3 fatty acids and DHA can help mitigate these negative effects.

Creatine Monohydrate:

When it comes to supplements that give you an edge in performance, creatine monohydrate is one of the most researched ones. When used in conjunction with resistance training, creatine improves strength and performance and even increases lean muscle mass. Do not get creatine mixed up with performance enhancing steroids! Creatine is found naturally in meats and fish, and based on the current literature, all the evidence is suggesting that creatine is completely safe and its positive effects are well documented by research.

For a more scientific study on what creatine is and how it works, read this article here.
Source: Scientific Study on Creatine & How It Works


Supplements for Vegans and Vegetarians

Vegans and vegetarians are generally deficient in Vitamin B12 because Vitamin B12 can not be produced in your body and is found naturally in animal meats. Whether or not you are engaged in resistance training, if you are a vegan/vegetarian, you should be supplementing with Vitamin B12.

Common Protein Sources for Vegans and Vegetarians
Example Protein Sources for Vegetarians

  • Egg whites
  • Tofu
  • Legumes
  • protein supplement e.g: whey protein


Example Protein Sources for Vegans

  • Plant protein supplement
  • Legumes
  • Hempseed
  • Quinoa
  • Soy


Keep in mind most vegan protein sources are not complete protein sources. Whereas the protein in chicken breast has a complete amino acid profile, and the chicken breast itself is around 98% protein, most vegan protein sources such as legumes have a low ratio of protein, usually around 30-40% and an incomplete amino acid profile. This is not to say a regular diet is superior to a vegan diet, but keep in mind that it is more difficult to hit your protein targets with a vegan diet simply because you are limited with food options. 

Meal Timing

Meal timing is not that important. What ˆ™s important is sustainability. For those who work irregular shifts, their meal timing will obviously be inconsistent. Hence, setting specific meal times is not necessarily the best strategy. It ˆ™s more important to focus on what you put in your body rather than when you are putting it in.

Having said that, if we had to put a  ˆœtime ˆ on a meal, then your  ˆœpre ˆ workout and  ˆœpost workout'' we think are the most important meals when it comes to fitness.

A pre workout meal should be high in carbohydrates and should ideally be consumed 1-2 hours before your workout. That means If you workout at midnight, then you can have a meal at 10 pm.

A post workout meal should be high in carbohydrates and protein. The carbohydrates help facilitate the absorption of protein and stimulate muscle protein synthesis which is essential for recovering from workouts and building new muscle.

How to apply the principles from this guide

This guide has given you a blueprint on how to meal prep properly. Here is the summary of how you should use the guide.

Step 1: Decide your Fitness Goal (Weight Loss, Weight Gain, Maintain Weight)

Step 2: Based on your goals calculate your daily caloric intake

Step 3: Based on your body weight calculate the grams of proteins you need to consume.

Step 4: Based on your daily caloric intake, allocate 20-30% of that for fats.

Step 5: Allot the remaining calories for carbohydrate intake

Step 6: Based on your diet preference (meat eater, vegetarian, vegan, etc) find the foods and recipes that can help you hit your macronutrient targets

Step 7: Try to eat 800 grams of fruits and vegetables a day. They have very little calories but are filled with micronutrients and minerals essential to maintaining good health.

Step 8: Add supplements to your diet to optimize your meal prepping efforts.

Step 9: Based on your resistance training schedule, figure out a time you need to have a pre workout meal and post work out meal.

Step 10: Prepare your meals accordingly either once a day, or 1-2 times per week. 


Written by

Ken Lu

Ken has a Bachelor's Degree of Psychology from the University of British Columbia, specializing in Sport Psychology. As well as being a Certified Personal Trainer, Ken is also a Movement & Mobility Specialist, and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He has trained for and won the 2018 NPAA BC Men's Physique Championship.