As a Registered Dietitian (RD) and Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD), I have written countless menus and sample meal plans to help active individuals make informed decisions around food for their body composition goals. In this post, I’m sharing ideas for nutrient dense, high-protein meals and snacks to reach 120 grams of protein a day!
Prioritizing Protein Intake
Are you following a macronutrient-based approach to nutrition, but have no idea how to piece together meals to reach your intake goals – specifically your protein targets?
If you have a goal for muscle gain or weight loss / fat loss (a body composition goal), maybe you keep hearing or reading the recommendation to eat a “high-protein diet” or “a lot of protein” but you’re not sure what that looks like.
You might even understand what foods could help you reach your protein goals, but you’re not sure if you want to just munch chicken or throw back the protein powder all day…
Well I’m happy to say that you are in the right place, my friend! My personal experience changing my body composition and professional experience as a Performance Dietitian are combining forces here. In this post, you will find balanced meal ideas to help you visualize higher protein intakes needed to gain muscle mass and/or lose body fat. While this is not a personalized guide, you can use these ideas to inspire the creation of your own personal sample meal plans.
Side note – please understand that the goal of 120g of protein per day shared in this post is not something that you should be aiming for. This is simply a fairly common goal for healthy, active females that I have worked with. Even if you consider yourself a healthy, active female, your personal goals may be higher or they may be lower!
How much protein is enough protein?
That is a very nuanced question! The answer is…it depends. Protein recommendations will vary based on factors such as height, weight, activity level, type of activity, personal goals, a busy schedule, food preferences, etc. Generally speaking, if you have a goal to gain muscle and/or lose fat…the current recommended range for optimal protein intake for active people is around 1.6-2.2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day (or simply up to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight). For example, a 140lb healthy, active female would likely need to aim for 100-140g protein per day to maximize body composition changes. The higher end of the protein recommendation can assist in maintaining muscle mass and managing hunger specifically when in a calorie deficit for fat loss.
High Protein Food List
Here is a list of common foods with a high protein content. You’ll notice that the highest sources of protein mainly come from animal products. While it is possible to reach your protein targets with a vegetarian diet or a vegan diet / fully plant-based diet, omitting animal proteins removes a significant source of high quality protein & key nutrients.
Also keep in mind that most food items are a combination of all macronutrients – protein, carbohydrate, and fat. Some food items will be mainly protein (ex: 1 cup of plain, fat-free greek yogurt will typically have about 25g protein paired with 8g or so of carbs), while others may have a low or moderate amount of protein mixed with other macronutrients (ex: 1 egg will have about 6g protein and 5g fat.).
- Meat: skinless chicken breast or thighs, 93% ground turkey or skinless turkey breast, sirloin/flank steak, 90/10 ground beef, pork tenderloin, deli meat, jerky, etc
- Seafood: Fish, crab, shrimp, etc
- Dairy products: low-fat greek yogurt, milk, cheese, cottage cheese, etc
- Eggs: whole eggs and egg whites
- Protein Supplements: third party tested whey protein powders / pre-made protein shakes with 15-20g+ protein per serving
While I certainly think there is a time and a place for supplemental protein, like protein bars and protein shakes, I suggest planning around a whole food protein source first. If ever making a suggestion to add a protein shake or bar…I usually suggest no more than 1 serving per day. This will help with ensuring a good amount of protein as well as a variety of nutrients.
Keep in mind that there are other protein-containing foods such as beans, nuts/seeds (ex: peanuts, peanut butter), whole grains (ex: quinoa), and other packaged items (ex: high-protein granola bars) as well as higher-fat animal proteins such as bacon, sausage, or full-fat dairy. These items range in protein content and can certainly help contribute to your overall protein intake.
How to Reach Your Protein Goals During the Day
When it comes to reaching your daily protein intake or transitioning to a higher protein diet, planning is key! Once you are aware of your recommended daily intake, I suggest creating mini-goals to consistently incorporate protein-rich food throughout the day. I typically recommend starting with a high-protein breakfast. This is a great way to start the day off strong with protein sources first thing in the morning & helps avoids playing catch up with your protein needs later on.
How to Eat 120 Grams of Protein a Day
Using the example of 120g protein, I would suggest breaking this up into 3 meals and 1-2 snacks during the day. This might look like:
- Breakfast – 30g
- Lunch – 30-35g
- Dinner – 30-35g
- Snack(s) – 10-20g
The following meal and snack examples would meet these protein ranges. They are balanced with all three macronutrients: protein, carbohydrate, and fat as well as a variety of nutrients crucial for optimal wellness. If you’re interested in learning more about how I recommend planning balanced meals…download my free Meal Planning Workbook.
Breakfast ideas with 30 grams of protein
Meal Prep egg casserole
1 serving sausage, egg, and cheese casserole
0.5 cup roasted potatoes
Latte with 8oz reduced-fat milk
Greek yogurt parfait
1 cup low-fat greek yogurt
0.5 cup blueberries
0.5 cup peanut butter chocolate chip granola
1 whole wheat bagel
1 slice of cheese
1 oz deli meat
Handful of spinach
Lunch & dinner ideas with 35 grams of protein
White chicken chili
1.5 cup white chicken chili
2 tbsp sour cream
10 tortilla scoops
Fiesta Chicken Bowl
0.75 cup fiesta chicken
0.5 cup brown rice
Fajita bell peppers and onions
2 slices wheat bread
1 tbsp mayo
2 ounces deli meat
1 slice cheese
2 low-fat string cheese sticks
1 whole wheat pita pocket
3 ounces rotisserie chicken
Chopped veggie mix: bell pepper, cucumber, tomato, red onion
1 ounce feta cheese
1-2 tbsp tzatziki
Snack ideas with 10-20+ grams of protein
Protein Snack Box (10g)
2 low-fat string cheese sticks
2 tbsp hummus
0.5 oz pretzels
Egg Salad (18g)
0.5 cup egg salad
1/2 whole wheat pita
Protein trail mix (15g)
1 oz beef jerky
0.5 ounce mixed nuts
1 tbsp cranberries
1 tbsp chocolate chips
Fruit + High Protein Dip (10g)
1 medium apple
0.25 cup greek yogurt
1 tbsp peanut butter
Protein Smoothie (35g)
1 scoop whey protein
1 cup frozen berries
Meal inspiration: head over to instagram and follow me @lifeisgoldin & stay up to date with recipes and other content shared to the blog!
Personalized recommendations: apply for nutrition coaching with me HERE!