You know that you need to eat to grow, but do you know exactly when you should be eating your muscle building meals? Let’s take a look at what science says about the idea behind meal timing to maximize muscle growth.
Calculate Calories First
Before we chat about the best times to eat to support muscle building, the first thing you’ll need to do is calculate your calories. We know, we know: calculating calories isn’t the sexiest part of fitness. But there’s no doubt about it: if you want to succeed in growing, you must know the number of calories to eat on a daily basis. Why?
Your daily caloric intake is going to be the foundation for your nutritional choices that will help you gain the muscle mass you want. Remember that you must eat more calories than you burn each day. How do you expect to know if you’ve eaten enough to support muscle growth if you don’t have your personalized caloric intake?
Check out our article on how to calculate your calories for a step-by-step guide that provides you with your very own daily caloric number to eat in order to maximize growth.
How Many Meals Per Day?
Now that you’re set with your daily caloric intake, let’s talk meal timing.
If your goal is muscle mass building or to get as big as possible, you have a lot of food to eat throughout the day. So, when should you eat? Should you eat only three times per day? Should you eat up to eight meals per day?
Well, the choice is up to you.
What Science Says About Meal Timing
For muscle building, recent studies suggest that meal timing doesn’t necessarily matter. What matters is that you get in your recommended number of calories and you are working hard as hell with a proper resistance training program that focuses on muscle hypertrophy.
To support muscle recovery and growth and to avoid muscle breakdown, you’ll need to consume more calories than you burn throughout the day. (1)
Do What Suits You
The best way to simplify meal timing is to base it on the signals that your body gives you and your personal preferences:
Listen to Your Body: Think about it: You know when you’re hungry, especially after an insane workout. Your body sends out those signals that make you feel ravenous when you come across a freshly cooked meal. You start eating and you go into a daze until the meal is gone.
Your body is only too happy to let you know when it’s time to eat. However, if you’re skipping on sleep, the “eat now” switch could be left on, promoting poor nutritional choices. Just because you need to eat a lot doesn’t mean you should be eating junk. If you eat junk, you’ll get junk results.
Make sure you listen to the signals that your body is giving you. For example, eat when you start to feel hungry, not hours after your first hunger pang. The one time you may not want to eat is immediately before bed. It can be hard on your digestive tract.
Your Preference: If you find that you prefer to skip breakfast, that’s okay. Some people are able to function more efficiently on an empty stomach in the morning while others require immediate nutrition upon waking. The idea is to take in healthy options throughout the day that meet your caloric range that you calculated.
Keep Your Stomach Quiet: If you’re involved in an intense training program, your body might wake you up in the middle of the night in search of calories. The best way to avoid this is to drink a casein-based protein shake thirty minutes to an hour before bed.
New to protein supplements? Don’t make these protein mistakes.
Don’t Forget About Portion Control
If you want to ensure that you reach your caloric range each day, it is going to be important to learn how to properly portion your meals.
Yes, you want to focus on eating more calories than you burn each day but that doesn’t mean you should just carelessly throw random food items on to your plate. The most important reason for portion control is to ensure you are meeting your macronutrient needs.
For example, if you are an endomorph body type (as we discuss in our article on calculating your calories), and you miss out on protein but you overeat on carbohydrates, you may see more fat gains than muscle gains.
The first step in controlling your portions is to get familiar with nutrition labels. Every nutritional label provides an exact measurement of what one serving is. Once you understand what a serving is made up of as far as macronutrients and calories, you can plan according.
If you are eating something that doesn’t have a label such as an apple then you can always jump online to find the nutrient contents. We recommend using CalorieControl.org.
Meal Prep is a Must
If you take away anything from this section, it needs to be this: meal preparation is going to save you time and frustration while dramatically increases your chances for muscle-building success.
Studies have shown that when you prepare your meals for the week in advance, you are more likely to stick to your diet and see long term muscle building results. (2)
Instead of trying to cook several large meals each day with your crazy schedule, we highly recommend dedicating one or two days per week where you cook large batches of food. Once you cook large batches of food, you can place them in plastic-ware containers and take them with you or have them ready to go at home.
From personal experience, we would suggest cooking your meals in bulk on a Sunday, especially if you’re following the normal Monday-to-Friday work schedule.
Meal Prep Example
On Sunday morning, select a few recipes from a website or cookbook that provide variety, flavor, and great nutrition. Head to the store and make sure you pick up enough food supplies to last you the desired number of days. If you’re cooking for five days, for example, make sure you get supplies for five breakfast meals, five lunch meals, five dinner meals, and five snack meals.
After shopping, head to the kitchen and prepare each recipe. When you’re finished cooking, divide the food evenly into food-friendly plastic storage containers and you can even write the date on the containers or as a sticky note on the refrigerator to avoid eating food that gets too old.
Below, you’ll find that we’ve provided a nutrition plan example that you are welcome to follow for the first week or two. However, we highly recommend extending your cooking knowledge and learning to prepare new meals that are different, seasonal, and nutritious.
Morning – Breakfast
- Three eggs with five servings of egg whites
- Chopped mixed veggies with two tablespoons of hummus in a pita wrap
- 1 orange
- 1 cup of water with Himalayan pink salt
Mid-Morning – Snack
- 1 protein shake (preferably a whey protein blend)
- 1 apple
Afternoon - Lunch
- Two chicken breasts cooked in one tablespoon of coconut oil
- Two cups of a mixed greens salad with one tablespoon of olive oil
- One cup of black rice
Late Afternoon – Snack
- One cup of Greek yogurt
- One cup of your choice of berries (placed in the yogurt)
- 1 protein shake (preferably a whey protein blend)
Evening – Dinner
- Six ounces of salmon
- One cup of lentils
- One cup of a mixed greens salad with one tablespoon of olive oil
- One apple
Night – Snack
- One cup of fat-free cottage cheese
- One chopped nectarine (in cottage cheese)
When Do You Prefer to Eat to Build Muscle?
Do you like to wait until the afternoon before eating your first meal? Can you barely wait an hour after you’ve woken up to eat breakfast? What are your favorite muscle-building meals? Let us know on our Facebook!
- Bellisle F, McDevitt R, Prentice AM. Meal frequency and energy balance. Br J Nutr. 1997 Apr;77 Suppl 1:S57-70.
- Ducrot P, Méjean C, Aroumougame V, Ibanez G, Allès B, Kesse-Guyot E, Hercberg S, Péneau S. Meal planning is associated with food variety, diet quality and body weight status in a large sample of French adults. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2017 Feb 2;14(1):12. doi: 10.1186/s12966-017-0461-7.