Niche Resources

How to Make the Most Of Your Meal Plan

A young woman stands in front of a salad bar in a dining hall.

This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

Being a college student has many layers when it comes to budgeting and managing time. Significant stress is caused by figuring out how to afford the expenses, save the most you can, and make decisions that will ultimately save you time as well.

Know your meal plan options and pick the best one

First, know your options; many schools offer multiple meal plans with various dining options. Many offer an unlimited option or look more like one meal a day.

If you live on campus in a dorm, you will most likely go for as many meal swipes as you can. If you are more in a suite-based dorm or apartment-style, you may want to opt-out of meal swipes to focus on more meals in your kitchen.

Some schools offer a currency system of sorts or may not offer plans. Different places on campus will accept various forms of payment, so find your favorite places to eat before deciding because when it comes down to it, you don’t want to waste swipes or currency. You especially don’t want to be dipping into your own pockets to pay these expenses.

Make a schedule with eating in mind

While you may see all these excellent dining halls on your campus, you won’t be able to eat at them if you can’t make it there in time. One of the biggest mistakes to make when constructing a schedule is not leaving much time in between classes.

While an hour might seem like enough time, you have to consider potential lines and your commute to classes, and keep in mind that you don’t always need to be rushing.

Allotting a couple of hours or so can allow you to get up for some snacks while you do homework and to take a moment to destress during a day of classes. While this may not be convenient for everyone or everyday schedules, you may want to consider integrating this for even one day during the week. 

Is A Meal Plan Worth It?

Utilize your dining hall and to-go services

My absolute favorite discovery during my time in college has been ziplock bags. 

You might ask what ziplock bags have to do with anything, but they are the perfect thing to bring to your dining hall. Many people suggest Tupperware, which is definitely beneficial when getting food out from the dining hall. Still, I find it to be bulky and sometimes not useful for in-between classes.

Ziplock bags take up way less room in your backpack, and you can either buy reusable ones, or if you’re in a dorm with limited kitchen access, you can get disposable ones for more convenience.

This is the only way my friends and I bring fruit and veggies to eat as snacks between classes. My dining hall is okay with taking fruits and vegetables, so see what you can do.

This also helps me eat more frequently since I tend to skip meals without time. If you just grab an apple or banana, it works all the same.

My school, the University of Massachusetts Lowell, also has many to-go services, but a thing to keep in mind at any school is some of these services don’t accept meal swipes. I didn’t research this before coming here, and there have been a few incidents where I was hoping to use a swipe to realize they only take cash or school credit.

Keep certain things in your dorm

College students often struggle with finding time and motivation to sit down at their dining hall to eat. Over the years, I have discovered a few tricks on what foods are essential to have on hand in a dorm when all you have is a fridge and a microwave.

I love keeping some non-perishable items like apple sauce, oatmeal, ramen, peanut butter, and tuna to snack on. I like to buy these items in bulk before moving back to campus.

Other items I frequently restock include tortillas (they don’t go back as quickly as bread), dried mashed potatoes, proteins with rice, and just a few candies that help me concentrate when stressed.

My favorite in-dorm recipe that I will share is loaded mashed potatoes. All you need are mashed potatoes, shredded cheddar, microwaveable bacon, sour cream, cheese, and some seasonings, and I have fed many with this quick delicious snack/meal. It typically costs less than a dollar per serving, so I love it.

The main takeaway is try to buy things that are cheap, won’t go bad quickly, and won’t leave you feeling horrible the next day. Most importantly, stock quick meals you can make at any time.

Look out for school sanctioned events

Throughout the semester, universities may often rent out food trucks, prepare a special at the dining hall, or maybe even have a BBQ. So many students miss out on such a fun time where there is an opportunity to see new faces and connect with more people. 

Other items may be offered as well. I have made tie-dye shirts, a potted succulent, and acquired a bunch of school swag. I have also known people to win Starbucks cups, gift cards, and university currency.

Check out your school email or your dining website for updates every so often so you aren’t missing out.

Find College Scholarships