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.

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 have many advantages.

Do You Need to Buy a Meal Plan?

At most schools, first-year students are required to have a meal plan. 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.

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.

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

Nearly all college campuses offer all-you-can-eat dining, 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!

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

Yes. Most schools allow you to swipe in guests with your meal card. If not, your guests can always pay cash to eat in the dining hall.

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Your Citation
Grove, Allen. "College Meal Plans." ThoughtCo, Feb. 9, 2017, Grove, Allen. (2017, February 9). College Meal Plans. Retrieved from Grove, Allen. "College Meal Plans." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 19, 2018).