College Meal Plans

What to Expect from College Meal Plans

Friends eating together in lunchroom
College meal plans. Ariel Skelley / Getty Images

One of the big differences between high school and college doesn't happen in the classroom, but at meal time. No longer will you eat meals around the family table. Instead, you'll make your own food choices in the college dining hall. To pay for your meals, chances are you'll need to purchase a meal plan for at least part of your college career. This article explores some of the questions you may have about these plans.

Key Takeaways: College Meal Plans

  • Most colleges require residential students to get a meal plan. This is especially true for first-year students.
  • The price of meal plans will vary significantly from school to school and the type of plan. Options ranging from 7 to 21 meals a week may be available.
  • At most schools, your meal card will work at all dining facilities on campus giving you a wide range of options.
  • At some schools, the money for unused meals can be spent at a campus convenience store or even with local merchants.

What Is a Meal Plan?

Essentially, a meal plan is pre-paid account for your on-campus meals. At the start of the term, you pay for all the meals you’ll eat in the dining halls. You’ll then swipe your student ID or a special meal card every time you enter a dining area, and the value of your meal will be deducted from your account.

How Much Do Meal Plans Cost?

Whenever you look at the cost of college, you'll need to factor in much more than tuition. Room and board costs vary widely, typically between $7,000 and $14,000 a year. Meals will often be half of that cost. Meal prices don't tend to be unreasonable, but they certainly aren't as cheap as making meals in your own kitchen. Colleges usually subcontract meal services to a for-profit company, and the college will also earn a percentage of the meal fees. Students who live off campus and enjoy cooking can often eat well and save money compared to a meal plan. At the same time, the convenience and variety of a meal plan has many advantages.

Do You Need to Buy a Meal Plan?

At most schools, first-year students are required to have a meal plan, and they may be required to choose the plan with the most meals. This requirement might be waved if you are commuting from home. Mandatory meal plans have a variety of purposes. Schools often want first-year students to become engaged in the campus community, and on-campus meals play an important part in that process. It’s also possible the requirement is coming from a contract with the food service provider, not the college itself. And, of course, the college makes money from the meal plan, so it benefits the school's bottom line when a plan is required.

Which Meal Plan Should You Get?

Most colleges offer many different meal plans—you may see options for 21, 19, 14, or 7 meals a week. Before purchasing a plan, ask yourself some questions. Are you likely to get up in time for breakfast? Are you likely to go out to the local pizza joint for dinner? Few students actually use 21 meals a week. If the reality is that you often skip breakfast and tend to eat pizza at one in the morning, then you might want to choose a less expensive meal plan and spend your saved money buying food at local eateries at the times that better match your habits.

What Happens If You Don't Use All Your Meals?

This varies from school to school, but often unused meals are money lost. Depending on the plan, the credit for unused meals may disappear at the end of the week or the end of the semester. You’ll want to check your balance frequently—some schools have small grocery stores where you can spend the money from unused meals. Some schools also have arrangements with local merchants, restaurants, and even farmers' market that make it possible to spend dining dollars off campus.

Should You Get a Bigger Meal Plan if You Eat a Lot?

Nearly all college campuses offer all-you-can-eat dining in at least some of the dining halls, so the same meal plan can accommodate you whether you eat like a mouse or a horse. Just watch out for that freshman 15—all-you-can-eat can be bad for your waistline! Nevertheless, athletes with giant appetites rarely complain about going hungry in college.

What Can You Do if You Have Special Dietary Needs?

When a college has thousands or tens of thousands of students, it is going to have many students who can't eat gluten, have dairy allergies, or are vegetarian or vegan. Food service providers at colleges are prepared to handle students' special dietary restrictions. Some schools even have entire dining halls dedicated to vegan and vegetarian options. At very small colleges, it's not unusual for students to develop relationships with the food service staff to have custom meals prepared for them. While you may not have the breadth of options available to other students, you are likely to have little difficulty meeting your dietary needs.

When Your Friends or Family Visit, Can They Eat with You?

Yes. Most schools allow you to swipe in guests with your meal card. Just realize that this will use one of the meals on your card. If you aren't able to swipe in a friend or family member, dining halls are almost always set up to accept cash.

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Grove, Allen. "College Meal Plans." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Grove, Allen. (2023, April 5). College Meal Plans. Retrieved from Grove, Allen. "College Meal Plans." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).