While you can certainly pack on pounds by eating any high-calorie food -- including fatty fast-food fare -- that isn't the healthiest way to gain weight. The truth is, a weight-gain eating plan doesn't look much different than a regular balanced diet -- you'll just scale up the portion sizes so you get the extra calories you need. Start your weight-gain journey by figuring out how many calories you need, then fill your diet with delicious, healthy high-calorie foods to meet your goals.
Set Your Calorie Intake
A healthy weight-gain diet should take into account your calorie needs. You'll need to take in slightly more than you burn each day to gain weight, but not so many excess calories that you're packing on lots of fat. A moderate calorie surplus -- about 250 to 500 extra calories daily -- is best for sustainable weight gain.
How many calories you actually need to create that surplus, though, depends on a few factors. Plug your age, gender, activity level, weight and height into an online calculator to estimate what you're burning daily, then add the 250 to 500 calories to get your calorie goal for weight gain.
A 25-year-old man who is 5-feet-10-inches tall and weighs 170 pounds, for example, burns about 3,150 calories if he's active for about an hour a day. He should eat 3,400 calories daily to gain 1/2 pound each week or 3,650 calories to gain 1 pound.
Once you know your calorie goal, split your intake into three meals and two to three snacks. How you distribute your calories depends on your personal preferences -- if you're a "three square meals" kind of person, you'll allocate more calories to larger meals; if you're a grazer, you'll enjoy moderately sized meals throughout the day. Find a pattern that works for your lifestyle, then adjust it as needed as you gain weight.
Make Weight-Gain Breakfasts
Enjoy a generous breakfast to kick off your calorie intake for the day. Fill a three- or four-egg omelet with your favorite veggies, along with cheese for extra calories. Or make a weight-gain-friendly parfait from Greek yogurt, mixed frozen berries and granola or chopped almonds, drizzled with a little honey for a touch of natural sweetness. Spread a slice or two of whole-wheat toast with mashed avocado and a pinch of sea salt, or top your toast with all-natural almond butter and sliced bananas for a sweeter meal. If you still need more calories, drink a glass of whole milk or 100-percent juice to reach your goal.
Plan High-Calorie Lunches and Dinners
Sizable portions of healthy foods at lunch and dinner help you gain the right way. Enjoy a hearty chili made from nonfat ground turkey or chicken breast, plus beans and quinoa for high-quality carbs and protein. Enjoy grilled salmon served atop a lentil and quinoa pilaf with a generous portion of grilled veggies on the side, or make your own burrito bowls from brown rice, black beans, sauteed peppers and onions, toasted corn kernels and season grilled chicken or tofu. Or keep it simple with sandwiches and wraps -- try wrapping avocado, tomato, lettuce and cheddar in a whole-wheat tortilla or making a sandwich from sliced turkey, turkey bacon, tomato, spinach and Dijon mustard. Enjoy a piece of fruit on the side, milk or juice for extra calories, or a serving of yogurt or cottage cheese with fruit for dessert.
Eat Calories Between Meals
Your meal plan should include a few snacks to help you spread your calories throughout the day so that you don't feel too full at meals. A homemade smoothie can pack lots of calories into a manageable snack. Make one from whole milk or coconut milk, yogurt or kefir, nut butter, frozen fruit and leafy greens, like spinach. Snack on calorie-dense foods -- like nuts or dried fruit -- so you can significantly boost your calorie intake without eating a huge portion. Make your own granola from oats, mixed nuts, chopped dried fruit, coconut oil and maple syrup for a flavorful snack you can enjoy on its own or as a topping for yogurt or cereal.
Pair Your Healthy Eating Plan With Exercise
Weight gain isn't just about your diet; you'll also need to exercise. Strength-training while you gain weight helps you pack on lean mass, which benefits your overall health. Incorporate two or three challenging strength workouts into your schedule each week. High-weight, low-repetition weight training is the best way to gain lean mass. You'll be able to gain as much as 3 pounds of muscle in your first month when you first start training, explains UCLA, but expect much smaller gains as you continue to lift weights over the long term. Consult a professional before you start -- she can help you choose the right weight, as well as show you the proper lifting technique so you'll get the most out of each exercise.