It's not so much the number of meals you need to eat a day to gain weight but the number of calories. That said, because you need to eat more calories in order to gain, eating more often might help you take in enough calories without feeling too full at your meals. Most health care professionals suggest five to six meals a day on a weight-gain plan -- consult your doctor or a dietitian to help design a plan that fits your individual needs.
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Eat Often for Weight Gain
You'll need to eat more calories than you burn daily to see a difference on the scale. One pound of fat contains 3,500 calories, so adding 500 extra calories a day may help you gain 1 pound a week. For example, if you need 2,000 calories a day to maintain your weight, upping your daily intake to 2,500 calories may help you gain the weight you need. Due to genetics and activity, however, you may need to adjust your calorie intake slightly to gain a pound a week.
Fitting all those extra calorie in three meals may be difficult. Eating more often -- five to six times a day -- spreads the calories out so you get what you need without feeling discomfort. Plan for three meals with two to three snacks to get what you need.
Fill Those Meals With the Right Food
You may get to eat more calories than most people when you want to gain weight, but that doesn't give you a license to live on cheeseburgers and french fries. Calories from any source will help you gain weight, but you should choose nutrient-dense calories for healthy weight gain. Fill up on high-calorie foods that are also rich in nutrients, such as whole-grain bread, brown rice, potatoes, peas, winter squash, avocados, 100-percent fruit juice, dried fruit, bananas, low-fat yogurt, cheese, salmon, lean red meat, beans, nuts and seeds. And limit your intake of high-calorie nutrient-poor options such as soda, fast food and sweets.
Up Your Calories With These Tweaks
If you're having trouble meeting your calorie target, try using "extras" to add more calories without eating more food. Pad your meals and snacks with calorie boosters such as oil, nut butters and nonfat dried milk powder to up calories without adding bulk. With 45 calories per teaspoon, vegetable oils, such as olive and safflower oil, can be added to salads, pasta and grains for extra calories. Use oil to stir-fry vegetables, saute potatoes and cook meats for more calories. Nut butters have about 90 calories per tablespoon and add more calories to your snacks. They go well with whole-grain crackers and bread, as a topping for apple and banana slices, and as dip for carrot and celery sticks.
Nonfat dried milk powder has 27 calories per tablespoon and can boost calories in both meals and snacks such as hot cereal, a glass of milk, yogurt, pudding, macaroni and cheese, soup and milkshakes.
A weight-gain diet plan doesn't need to look much different than a regular diet -- it'll just have more calories. Start the day right with a cup of whole-grain ready-to-eat cereal with 1 cup of low-fat milk mixed with 2 tablespoons of nonfat dried milk powder and topped with a sliced medium banana. Five whole-grain crackers with 1 ounce of cheddar cheese makes a good midmorning snack.
At lunch, top 2 cups of mixed greens with 3 ounces of grilled salmon, 1/4 cup of chickpeas, 12 almonds chopped, 2 tablespoons of olive oil and balsamic vinegar with a 6-ounce container of low-fat yogurt and a fresh orange. Make a smoothie for a midafternoon snack with 1/2 cup of blueberries, 1/2 cup of strawberries, 1 cup of soy milk and 2 tablespoons of peanut butter.
For dinner, stir fry 1 cup of mixed veggies and 3 ounces of sliced chicken in 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil, and serve it with 1 cup of brown rice. This sample meal plan has 2,510 calories.