What You Need to Know About College Meal Plans

A college's cafeteria can really make or break your campus experience. Here's what you should know about dining dollars and different college meal plan options!

Each semester, college students everywhere are confronted by the meal plan dilemma: deciding which plan is best for you financially—and for your stomach. In the wake of COVID-19, knowing what selection to make (if any) has become even more challenging. The good news is there are plenty of options to suit your unique needs! Here’s everything you need to know about college meal plans.

What is a meal plan?

A meal plan is a method of purchasing meals up front for the duration of the semester at the college you attend. Many colleges require their on-campus students to purchase a meal plan, especially first-year students. Since cooking in your dorm room or suite is difficult (or sometimes even prohibited), it’s usually your best option when living in a dorm for finding a variety of accessible food options. In most cases, you access your meal plan by either swiping a card or entering a code at various dining locations on campus.

Related: The Best College Meals for Your Taste Buds and Budget

What are the different types of meal plans?

Most schools offer several options to choose from for your meal plan; these are known as tiered options. For example, at North Carolina State University, there are three main plans for on-campus students. All three provide unlimited dining room access, but they differ when it comes to the amount of meal credits (using your meal plan at other on-campus food locations) and guest passes. As with most things, the more expensive plans will have more flexibility and coverage. It’s crucial to consider what you value in a meal plan (i.e., will you really use guest passes?) before you make your choice.

Bulk meal plan options

One type of meal plan offered at a lot of colleges is more of a buy-in-bulk style. Typically a bit more affordable, this option offers roughly 170 meals for the semester, including food from both the dining hall and meal credits. This could be a helpful option for someone who isn’t planning to eat on campus on the weekends or who makes their own breakfasts and some lunches. If you do the math, assuming a semester is about 14 weeks long, 170 meals gives you just over 12 meals a week. For many students, that might be just the right amount; plus, it’s usually around $300 cheaper than the next most affordable plan!

Flexible meal plan options

Some schools offer meal plans to suit the needs of their commuting or off-campus students. Some colleges will simply have an option to buy several hundred dollars’ worth of dining credit that can be used anywhere on campus, while others grant certain amounts of meal swipes combined with a lower amount of dining dollars to use at on-campus restaurants, cafés, or mini-marts. At Anderson University, commuters can choose between several plans designed to fit their needs, ranging from 25–50 meal swipes per semester.

Related: The Best Student Discounts: Food, Clothes, and More

Is it worth it to get a meal plan?

If you’re living on campus, a meal plan is likely required, especially for your first year of college. If it’s not required, it’s still something to seriously consider. College dining areas usually have pay-to-eat options that allow you to pay each time you want a meal. If you don’t plan to eat in the dining hall frequently, this could be a good option. But be prepared for the extra hassle of producing your debit card or cash each time you want to grab something. Also, make sure you’ve thought through how you’re planning to eat without utilizing the on-campus dining resources. If you don’t have a car on campus, it could be tough to find many options. Food also adds up faster than you think, specifically food from restaurants. In my experience, at least for the first year as an on-campus resident, a meal plan was a helpful and simpler experience than paying each individual time.

Beyond freshman year

After you finish out your freshman year, the decision regarding meal plans shifts. Many students choose to move into apartments or rent houses, and with that change comes increased access to full kitchens. Some students may choose to cook at least some of their meals, but it’s still important to consider if you’ll have the time and energy to budget, grocery shop, find and prepare a variety of recipes, and clean up after yourself consistently while balancing classwork, your social life, and other responsibilities. Constance Gianakopoulos, a sophomore at the University of South Carolina, says she won’t be using a meal plan this semester because she “won’t be on campus much since the majority of my classes are online” due to the changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Commuter students

Commuting students also face a complex decision when it comes to meal plans. Since you’re most likely living at home or in an apartment, there’s more food at your disposal than students living in dorms. And chances are you won’t be on campus for three meals a day, depending on whether you plan to spend more of your time at home or on campus. You definitely won’t need a full meal plan, but if a partial option is available, you may want to utilize it. Some commuters, like Joanne Azar—who’s in her junior year at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte—find meal plans to be unnecessary. “Since I still live with my family and am only a 15-minute drive from campus, I found it financially better to eat breakfast and dinner at home, then bring lunch or stop by one of the many restaurants on campus,” she explains. It’s worth it to investigate your college’s options for commuter students, but also remember that you may be better off paying as you go if you plan to eat on campus infrequently.

Related: Is Commuting to College Right for You? 3 Things to Consider 

Frequently asked questions about college meal plans

If you’ve decided to buy a college meal plan, here are answers to some common questions you may have before locking down on which one is right for you.

What if I have a guest?

If you’re planning to have guests, the answer to this question varies depending on the college. Your dining dollars can typically be used for anyone. However, whether someone other than you can use your card for a meal swipe depends on the specific protocols at the college as well as the meal plan you select. At Anderson University, the policy is one person per card, per meal, meaning your guest could swipe your card, but you wouldn’t be able to swipe in for that meal five seconds later. However, other colleges just deduct two meals when you swipe twice. Still others have allowances for a certain number of guest passes per semester. This is a question worth checking your college’s dining website about.

What if I have special dietary needs?

With more students than ever having specific dietary needs, it’s important for colleges to offer food options that suit a variety of individuals. Typically, a larger university will offer more options than a smaller one, but it really all depends. It’s standard for colleges to post nutrition and ingredient information above the food they’re serving, which can give you more insight into what you can or can’t eat. At UNC Charlotte, Nutrition Services has icons above the vegetarian, vegan, or gluten-free items being served. The University also offers those with severe allergies the option to get meals specially prepared to avoid cross-contamination. However, it’s always important to keep in mind that the best way to know exactly what’s in mainstream meals is by preparing them yourself.

What if I have meals or dining dollars left over at the end of the semester?

Meals don’t usually roll over to the next semester. That’s why it’s good to plan out how much you’re really going to eat in college. The whole dilemma of meal plans can be solved by critically thinking about what your plans are for the future. You’ll save yourself time, money, and trouble down the road by considering your expectations for a meal plan while also keeping in mind the regulations surrounding them. 

Related: Top Tips for Eating Healthy on Campus

Be sure to check with your college(s) of interest if you have other specific questions about their meal plans. It’s another piece of the college search puzzle that may not seem important now but will be a big part of campus life later!

For more advice on picking a college with all your day-to-day needs, check out our Student Life – Living on Campus section.

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