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College Meal Plans 101 Tips & Tricks for Finding the Most Affordable Plan

When it comes to college choices, picking the right meal plan probably isn’t high on most students’ to-do lists. However, it can pay to pick the right plan. According to the Hechinger Report, the average college or university charges around $4,500 per year for a meal plan, with many schools charging much more. While meal plans are often mandatory for freshman, there are usually a variety of options to choose from, some more cost-effective than others. Get the lowdown on the different types of college meals plans, including tips for choosing the right plan and how to save.

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When it comes to college meal plans, there are a lot of different options out there. Brochures and websites for colleges may use terms that a meal plan rookie won’t recognize, and each school will likely have a different combination of options. Here are the basics of meal plans, including commonly used terms.

Terms to Know

Dining Hall

Dining halls on college campuses are often structured somewhat like a cafeteria, with different stations students can order food from. On campuses with per-meal plans, dining halls may function as all-you-can-eat once a student spends a meal pass to enter the hall.

Especially common on larger campuses, college food courts are very similar to the food courts found at shopping malls. A range of independent restaurants and fast-food eateries operate on or near the college and may accept students’ meal plans as a method of payment.

Students’ meal plans may come with some passes that can be given to a friend or family member who is visiting the student. Guest meal passes are more common on campuses that have per-meal plans rather than point plans.

Students are given passes for a certain number of meals per day, week, or semester. The student uses a meal pass when they go eat no matter what they eat, so a four-course dinner costs the same as a bowl of oatmeal.

Students purchase meal points at the beginning of the semester and then spend those points throughout the year. Meals and food sold by the college or at on-campus establishments cost different amounts of points which are deducted from the students’ accounts whenever purchased.

Schools and programs use this term to mean both housing and food. More specifically, room means lodging or dorm room and board means a meal plan.

Types of Meal Plans

Light

Light meal plans cost less but also give students fewer meal points or fewer meal swipes, depending on how the school structures the plan. A light plan may, for example, give a student access to 14 meals a week (which means two meals per day, including weekends).

Medium plans give students access to standard three daily meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) through meal swipes or points.

Heavy meal plans give students enough points or swipes to eat beyond a standard daily three-meal plan. A few colleges even offer limitless plans that allow students to eat as much and as often as they want, although this costs significantly more than other potential plans.

This type of plan is a step below “light” plans. Depending on the school, they can give students enough points or swipes for one on-campus meal a day.

Some colleges allow students who eat elsewhere (such as at their home off-campus) to purchase meal swipes or points as they need outside of a full meal plan. Depending on how much meals cost in direct cash, students may want to purchase a small amount of points or swipes to use occasionally or to supplement a meal plan that is running low.

How to Choose the Right Plan

Choosing the wrong meal plan can cost a student hundreds of dollars, either in the form of unspent meal swipes and points from a too-big plan or the cost of adding additional meals to a plan that turned out to be too small. Students can ask themselves the following questions to help decide on the best plan.

Are you an athlete?

Depending on the length, intensity and goals of students’ workouts, they may need to consume more calories than a non-athletic student. Athletes or other students who exercise frequently may want to choose a meal plan with more points or swipes.

Students who take early morning classes — or those who prefer to sleep as late as possible — may skip breakfast in favor of an after-class brunch or even just a granola bar until lunch. Students who routinely skip a meal may find it more cost effective to take a lighter meal plan.

At colleges with per-swipe meal plans, students who prefer frequent snacks to full meals may find themselves at a disadvantage: a banana and yogurt can count as a full meal and limit students to only three snack-runs per day. Students who rely more on snacks than full meals may want to use a lighter plan in favor of buying snacks off-campus or a use a heavier meal plan to assure they can grab food whenever they want it.

Smaller campuses may have more limited dining options, even with menu rotations. Students who desire a significant amount of variety in their meal choices may want to use a lighter meal plan so they have more funds available for buying groceries or eating out.

Students often frequent coffee shops and cafes on campus both for a caffeine fix and as a study spot. Students who drink coffee frequently may want to consider a meal plan with more points to help account for this extra cost.

Some colleges require students, especially freshmen and sophomores, to purchase a meal plan that will support a standard three-meals-per-day diet. Students living on-campus who have the opportunity to choose lighter plans, however, may want to consider using dorm kitchens and personal appliances (such as mini-fridges and microwaves) to prepare some of their own meals.

Students who live off-campus may still be required to purchase a light “commuter”-level plan that supports one or two daily meals on campus. However, students who live very close to campus or spend the majority of their time on campus may want to consider purchasing a heavier meal plan.

Regardless of whether they live on- or off-campus, students considering preparing some (or all) meals for themselves may want to explore how easily and frequently they can go grocery shopping. Are stores nearby? Is there transportation available? Colleges may have agreements with local retailers that allow students to use their meal points to buy food and groceries. For example, the University of Arizona’s CatCash, which works in tandem with a standard meal plan, allows students to shop at a range of off-campus stores.

Some colleges allow meal points and swipes to “roll over” to the next semester. This means that if a student unintentionally purchases a heavier meal plan than they needed one semester they will not lose all of the excess points or swipes they paid for. Those students may want to err on the side of a heavier meal plan.

If a college allows students to add more meals or points to their plan for a reasonable fee, students may want to purchase a less expensive meal plan that they can add to in the event they have underestimated how large of a plan they need.

Students who unintentionally choose meal plans that are too small may be charged penalties when adding more points or meals. On the flip side, students with larger meal plans than necessary can lose leftover meals or points they have already purchased at the end of the semester. Gauging which meal plan will be the best fit can take some trial and error, so students may want to research whether the school will allow them to change meal plans mid-semester and if the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs.

Dietary Restrictions & Accommodations

Colleges and universities often require students who live on-campus (and even those who live off-campus) to purchase a meal plan. This can present a challenge for students with dietary restrictions that may not be fully accommodated by the school. Those with especially strict or uncommon dietary restrictions may want to consider the following points to determine if a school’s dining and meal services will be able to meet their needs.

Kosher Dining & Meal Plans

Many college campuses offer kosher dining options, especially for religious holidays such as Passover. Some colleges, like Boston University and University of Maryland, College Park have kosher kitchens and even kosher meal plans. Unfortunately, some campuses don’t offer kosher dining options, so Jewish students may want to contact their college’s dining services before committing to a meal plan. For individuals still in the college-selection process, Hillel International and Heart to Heart both offer extensive college guides and directories for Jewish students with special attention to kosher meal plans and dining options.

Some colleges offer halal dining, often in conjunction with kosher options. Unfortunately, in 2010 the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America found that some colleges’ kosher-halal kitchens were halal in name only; for individuals who do not consider all kosher meat halal, this is an obvious concern. Hopefully dining accommodations for Muslim students have improved since IFANCA’s findings, but Muslim students may want to find out what steps their college has taken to assure dhabiha has been properly performed before they purchase a meal plan.

Students with well-known allergies and intolerances, such as Celiac’s disease, may find options already available at campus dining halls. For more specialized dietary needs, colleges will often work with students to create allergen-free meals and dining opportunities. For example, Marquette University’s dining services takes precautions against cross-contamination by storing the ingredients for a student with severe allergies separately from all other ingredients and will even individually prepare specialized off-menu items for the students who need them. Students with significant allergies who are still in the college-selection process should explore Allergic Living’s directory of food allergy and gluten-free policies on college campuses.

Can You Get a Meal Plan Exemption?

Each college and university will have its own method for determining if a student should be exempt from a mandatory meal plan. These decisions are often made on a case-by-case basis and may require documentation from a doctor (or from a religious leader such as a rabbi or imam in the case of religious dietary restrictions). For an example of how one college processes waivers, look at Evergreen State College’s meal plan exemption process. Colleges generally extend as many accommodations as they can and treat waivers as a last resort.

How to Save on Meal Plans

Meal plans can be expensive, so students may choose a lighter plan to avoid some of these costs. In order to avoid the fees associated with adding more points or swipes to a light plan at the end of the semester, students can instead plan out home- or dorm-cooked meals in advance. If students have budgeted their meal points or swipes in advance, they will not be surprised by a suddenly declined meal card.

Research financial assistance

Students with financial need may be eligible to receive their meal plans at a reduced rate. University of California Berkeley’s Food Assistance Program helps students with both short-term and long-term needs, and schools like University of Louisville and Evergreen State College may waive a mandatory meal plan for students with significant financial burdens or hardships.

Students can use ride-share programs (or friends with cars) to stock up on groceries so they do not have to rely solely on their meal plan. This can allow students to sign up for a lighter meal plan and likely save money in the long-run (even including the cost of groceries).

Common dorm room appliances such as mini fridges and microwaves may cost money when initially purchased but can help college students eat with a lighter meal plan for years to come.

For students who are cooking for the first time in college, dozens of guides are readily available that can walk them through the basics and include easy, cheap recipes. Check out our guide on dorm room recipes for inspiration.

Residence halls often have a kitchen that students are free to use. Sometimes they are even pre-stocked with cooking utensils left behind by previous residents. Although living in a dorm room can entail a mandatory meal plan, students who frequently use the dorm kitchen can purchase a light meal plan and prepare many of their own meals.

Students who do not plan on relying solely on their meal plans should try to plan what their home-prepared meals will be. This can help prevent accidentally using more meal swipes than intended and having to purchase more swipes at the end of a semester. Additionally, planning prepared meals beforehand can help make sure groceries do not spoil before being used.

Ramen is an iconic college staple in large part because of its low cost, but it can be easily upgraded to something healthier and more filling. Buzzfeed, FoodBeast, and HerCampus both have useful guides for altering and enhancing ramen noodles on a budget.

Resources

  • 7 Ways to Save Money on Food in College

    This article from Stanford University’s student-run blog The College Puzzle covers a range of methods students can use to eat without emptying their wallets.

  • College Student Fitness and Nutrition

    How to stay fit and eat well on a college schedule and budget.

  • College and University Food Bank Alliance

    Students who rely on meal plans may find themselves without food during some holiday breaks and if a meal plan runs out. In order to protect students from these challenges, some campuses have established food banks. Students can reach out to CUFBA for help establishing a food bank on their own campus.

  • Halal Food

    This search engine helps users find nearby halal establishments including distributors, restaurants, and grocery stores.

  • How to Save on Food After the Mandatory College Meal Plan Ends

    The Penny Hoarder provides useful tips and tricks for how college students can find, buy, and prepare food cheaply.

  • It’s Hard to Study if You’re Hungry

    This New York Times article discusses some of the flaws of the campus meal system, such as how students cannot share or donate their excess meal points and swipes to fellow students. The author also discusses steps being taken by students to help address this issue.

  • My Halal Kitchen

    This website provides tutorials and advice for cooking and eating halal, including a page dedicated specifically to college students

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