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Q&A: Three Big Meals or Several Smaller Meals?

If I'm looking to eat several smaller meals throughout the day—rather than three big meals—should I try to eat certain foods or food groups at different points in the day?

Eating smaller meals throughout the day is fine and can be approached a few ways. Let’s say you normally eat breakfast at 8:00 a.m., lunch at 1:00 p.m., and dinner at 7:00 p.m. You could simply split the larger meal into two smaller portions—eat one portion at mealtime and the other as a “snack” before the next meal. For example, if you usually eat a sandwich and soup for lunch at 1:00 p.m., you could have the sandwich at 1:00 p.m. and then the soup at 4:00 p.m.. 

You can aim for the same food composition at each smaller meal (some protein, veggies, fruits and starches, and healthy fat) just in smaller quantities. However, one of the smaller meals might miss one of the components if you are on the run or not able to prepare a mini-meal. Just make sure you get in your veggies with at least a couple meals. Additionally, research shows that muscle protein synthesis is maximized by having moderate doses of protein (15 to 25 grams for most people) spaced evenly throughout the day, so a source of protein at most meals would make sense. 

Finally, you can also use smaller meals as a way to better fuel your training. You will likely be eating within an hour or two both before and after training, so you can plan a pre- and post-run meal or snack.  Typically, those meals would focus on carbs and moderate protein. Keep fat and fiber to a minimum, especially before training and if you have a sensitive stomach. If you are eating a meal later in the evening, try to give yourself at least one to two hours before bed so that you can digest. 

One example of a smaller meal day could look like this:

  • Breakfast, 8:00 a.m.: One to two eggs on an English muffin with tomato
  • Morning Snack, 10:30 a.m.: A piece of cheese and fruit
  • Lunch, 1:00 pm.: Half-sandwich and salad
  • Afternoon pre-run snack, 4:00 p.m.: Yogurt with berries
  • Dinner, 6:30 p.m.: Salmon filet with baked potato or sweet potato and asparagus
  • After-dinner snack (if desired), 8:30 p.m.: Small bowl of cereal

Jason Machowsky

Jason Machowsky is a board-certified sports dietitian and certified strength and conditioning specialist at the Tisch Sports Performance Center at Hospital for Special Surgery. He received his Masters of Science degree in applied physiology and nutrition from Teachers College at Columbia University.

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