We often worry about loss when it comes to fitness—how much weight to drop or body fat to trim. But an even more important consideration is how to eat to gain, whether it’s muscle, strength, or stamina. It’s not just a matter of packing on pounds; a few weeks of eating fast food, pastries, and other junk can pretty much take care of that. Rather, the secret to gaining in a smart, healthy way has to do with getting the right amount of nutrients at the ideal time. You’ve likely already put grilled chicken and lean cuts of meat on your shopping list. But there are plenty of other surprising choices that are effective in helping you build lean mass. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. COTTAGE CHEESE. Though Greek yogurt has gotten most of the attention over the past several years, cottage cheese has been an unsung hero. At 13 grams per four ounces, that’s more than most Greek yogurts, plus it’s high in calcium (about 70 milligrams per four ounces). And brands like Daisy Low Fat Cottage Cheese have just four ingredients, so it’s a “clean” food that packs in some serious nutrition. Mix one cup cottage cheese with a handful of nuts and some fresh or frozen fruit for a powerful muscle-strengthening meal.

2. NUTS. Gaining lean muscle means eating more quality calories, and nuts are an easy way to do that. They’re loaded with healthy fats, a good amount of protein (up to seven grams per ounce), fiber, and other muscle-building nutrients. Their portability makes them a perfect midday snack when you’re on the go. My favorites include almonds, pistachios, and walnuts.

3. AVOCADO. This fruit is different from most in that it’s very high in healthy fat, about 20 grams of ­monounsaturated fat in a medium-size avocado. That means it adds a lot of calories, which is exactly what’s needed to gain muscle. Top your eggs with half an avocado, add it to a grilled-chicken wrap, or use guacamole as a dip for veggies.

4. WHOLE EGGS. Though egg whites have a health halo, go ahead and eat the entire egg. The yolk will provide an additional three grams of protein and has important nutrients for recovery and health, like vitamin E, lutein, selenium, and more. Have a couple each day.

5. WILD SALMON. Fresh or canned, this food is hard to beat. A serving the size of your hand has around 25 grams of muscle-fortifying protein, plus it’s also packed with omega-3 fatty acids. One of my favorite ways to enjoy it in a hurry is to mix a can of wild salmon with mustard and then set aside. Cut an avocado in half, remove the seed, then add the salmon mixture in place of where the seed once sat. Eat and enjoy!

All in the Timing
You already know that eating protein is crucial to helping muscles rebuild and get stronger. But there’s one often-overlooked piece to the protein puzzle, and it has nothing to do with how much you are consuming. Rather, the focus is on how often you eat this essential nutrient. The key with protein is to divide your intake as evenly as possible throughout the day. So, if you normally eat 120 grams of protein per day, aim to get four or five meals that each provide around 20–30 grams of protein.