Is A Meal Plan Worth It In College?
When it comes to living independently for the first time at college, finding and having access to meals is an important part of the college experience (and survival).
From freshman year to now (junior year), I have lived on-campus. This upcoming year, I will be a resident educator, which is similar to a resident advisor position. From my perspective, much of the decision to get a meal plan is tied to where you are going to live. At the time you decide where you want to live is usually the time you will determine what meal plan, if any, you would like.
Every school’s meal plan is different and gives you a variety of options when it comes to where and what you have to eat. Be sure to read the fine print so you can make the most of your plan. Also, check the cutoff date to adjust or cancel your plan so you are not stuck with a plan that will not work for you.
Schools usually have a combination of these three types of models:
Weekly: Have an allotment of meals per week (ex: 14 meals a week)
Block Plan: Buy a certain number of meals per semester (ex: 75 meals a semester)
Dining Dollars: Use like regular money that is loaded onto your account (ex: Flex dollars)
Below are a few questions you can ask yourself to help determine whether you should get a meal plan.
Is it a requirement for students living on-campus/off-campus?
Depending on where you go to school, there will be different policies around getting a meal plan. Typically, if freshmen are required to live on campus, they will be required to get a meal plan.
My freshman year, I was required to get one and got a weekly plan with dining dollars because I was living in a dorm-style building. The next year, I was still required to get some sort of meal plan, but I could save money by just getting dining dollars because I had a small kitchen and didn’t need to eat in dining halls as often.
If you live off-campus, you still may want to get a meal plan for a variety of reasons, including not having enough time in your schedule to cook, no access to a grocery store, having a small or limited kitchen, or saving money in the long run.
A few of my commuter friends opted into getting meal plans because of the convenience, so they bought a block plan instead of weekly allotted meals. If you have guests or bring guests onto campus for a meal, they may require you to either use a guest “meal,” use one of your allotted meals, or pay for it out-of-pocket or with dining dollars. This may be significant to which plan you choose depending on your situation.
Is it included in your Room and Board Fees? Will your scholarship cover it?
At some schools, the cost of a meal plan is already included or grouped into the fee. For other schools, you may have to do the calculations yourself.
If you have to pay for it separately, reading the fine print of your scholarship can help you determine how much support is available. Buffet style versus grab-and-go can change your perspective on how many “meals” you will need and how many options you may have. Some plans/dining halls on campus only give you food during the weekdays, so be sure to factor that in to your cost for eating on the weekends.
If you cannot afford the dining plan and are facing food insecurity, research any resources the school has that could help you. Depending on whether your school is a public or private institution can affect what resources are available.
Most students are not eligible to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program SNAP benefits, but there are exemptions. My school has the Pioneer Pantry where students can anonymously submit requests for food or toiletries to be picked up for free, no questions asked.
Do you have your own kitchen / living space?
As mentioned above, what kind of meal plan you should get depends on where you’re living. Having a kitchen, or at least a communal kitchen, can expand your options. At the same time, meal prepping, grocery shopping, cooking, and cleaning up takes up a lot of time.
In the apartment I lived in my sophomore year, cleaning dishes became an issue because we did not have a dishwasher and had limited sink and counter space. If you have a meal plan, living in a space with a kitchen may not be necessary, saving you some money.
That sophomore year, I wished I had a more comprehensive meal plan at times because of my strenuous schedule and limited space. It did force me to eat more healthily and learn how to effectively balance a budget, though. If you have a shared kitchen, brainstorm with your roommates how you will want to use it.
Regarding if you should bring a mini-fridge to your dorm will depend on factors including building codes, storage, and meal plan. Some schools already have a mini-fridge and microwave in their dorms.
I did not bring a mini-fridge my freshman year and did not feel like I ever needed one. I was covered on my meal plan and had access to a shuttle that went to the grocery store to get items to snack on. My school also has a grab-and-go place where I can use dining dollars to get something if I am hungry.
In our smaller apartment space my sophomore year, all four of us had a communal mini-fridge that became pretty cramped at times. Ultimately, it’s a personal choice, so it can be beneficial or a nuisance depending on your situation.
Are the dining hours compatible with your schedule?
Be sure to check all of the dining halls’ hours of operation. Depending on your schedule, their hours or location may become inconvenient.
For example, my first class freshman year was at 8 am and the dining hall opened at 7 am. This may seem like enough time, but on some days, I would not have the time to digest my food. Also, the grab-and-go was not open at that time.
On a larger campus, a few places on campus may not accept meal swipes, only dining dollars. If I had a late-night class, I found only the grab-and-go place was open, giving me a limited space to sit down and enjoy a meal. My sophomore year, I found I did not have time to go back to my apartment during the day, so I would have to buy meals from the dining hall or grab-and-go if I didn’t pack lunch. That can be expensive and adds up quickly.
If you like to study and snack in a cafe-like setting, scout out those locations and their hours of operation. I am grateful my school’s library allows eating and drinking (just not around the computer!) and had a vending machine.
How accommodating are they with dietary restrictions?
I have a few mild food allergies, but they were pretty easy to navigate around on-campus to avoid foods with those ingredients. A responsibility I took on was to always carry an antihistamine or EpiPen with me just in case I accidentally ate something I was allergic to.
However, if you have a certain disease or dietary restriction, a school’s flexibility and options will majorly impact whether you purchase a meal plan or not.
I know a friend who got a specially prepared meal covered by the meal plan, which made me respect my school’s response to her specific situation. Something else I appreciated about my school is they would either email the students the menu of the dining hall’s weekly meals or provided them in an app where you could see all the nutritional and allergen information as well as give feedback about the food.
Is there a grocery store nearby?
Living at a school where the city is my campus can be both rewarding and challenging. There are plans for a new Target to be built downtown, and of course, there are restaurants and convenient stores like CVS or 7/11.
To my knowledge, the nearest place to get groceries involves a bus ride outside of the city. Thankfully, my school provides shuttles to grocery stores and neighborhoods with activities to do outside the city.
If you have a dietary restriction or need to buy groceries every week, you may not want a meal plan if you want to customize your meals. Also, carrying groceries from the store to the shuttle and back to my apartment was sometimes difficult. I always brought my recyclable grocery bags to lighten the load and limit how many bags I had to carry.
A few grocery stores are starting to charge for plastic grocery bags, so make sure you have the resources to get food. My friend invested in a grocery cart that could fit between the shuttle isles and it was well worth it. There may be a grocery service near you where you can order through an app and get them delivered to you. This could be an option, but it can be expensive.
I hope by sharing some of my pros and cons to having a meal plan offered insight into what it is like and if it could be reasonable for your situation. Every school, meal plan, and living arrangement will be different. Weighing the pros and cons can help you make a more confident decision.
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