How to Select the Best College Meal Plan

There's No Right or Wrong - Just What Works Best for You

Three young women having lunch in cafeteria
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You've read through all the new material about your school. You know who your roommate is; you know what day you're moving in; you may have even thought about what to pack. But one thing that seems super confusing is the campus meal plan. How on earth do you figure out which one is best for you?

Research What Plans Your School Offers

College meal plans usually take one of several forms. You may get a certain number of "meals" per semester, meaning you can enter the dining hall a pre-set number of times and eat to your heart's content. You may have something similar to a debit account, where you are charged based on what you purchase. Each time you eat, your account is debited until your balance reaches zero. Your school may also offer a combination plan (some debit, some meal credits).

Think About Your Eating Habits

Be honest with yourself about your eating habits. If you are always up late, don't approach your meal plan thinking that you are suddenly going to wake up early every day and eat a healthy breakfast. Also, realize that things are going to change when you're at school. You might be up late with friends and want to order pizza at 3:00 a.m. You may have an 8:00 a.m. lab class, making breakfasts nearly impossible. By knowing your eating habits, you can adjust how you approach your meal plan as you adjust to life on campus (especially if you're trying to avoid the infamous "Freshman 15.")

Learn What the Start and End Dates of Your Plan Are

Knowing the start and end dates of your plan is also important. For example, if you are given $2000 for the entire semester, using that for 12 weeks or 16 weeks makes a big difference as to how you budget. Additionally, you can check throughout the semester to see if you're on track. If the meals you've been buying your off-campus friends are really hurting your balance, offer to buy coffees instead. Or, if you have a little extra, treat your parents or friends when they come for a campus visit.

Find Out What the Dining Options Are on Your Campus

Each college offers its own unique dining options. Some schools offer one main dining hall, with no outside vendors (such as Jamba Juice or Taco Bell). Some schools only offer outside vendors. Other schools have dining areas in each residence hall, and you will learn quickly which halls are more accommodating than others. Some schools, especially larger public ones, have relationships with nearby restaurants where you can use your dining plan off-campus (for that 3:00 a.m. pizza, perhaps!).

Look Into Handling Any Restrictions You May Have

Most schools are also reasonably accommodating if you have eating restrictions, such as being lactose-intolerant or having religious restrictions. Learn as much as you can before you arrive on campus, but also relax and know that a lot of the smaller details will work themselves out when you arrive. Understanding the basics, though, will give you one less thing to worry about when you start classes.

Know What Your Options Are in Case You Need to Change After Arriving

At least be aware of your options for changing your plan mid-semester. Most schools won't give you your unused money back, but they will let you add more money (or meal credits) later in the semester. If this is the case at your school, you may want to err on the smaller side if you're trying to decide between plans. Some schools will let you carry over unused funds or meal credits, too, which means that you won't lose any money if you don't use everything by the end of the semester. Know what your options are and try to plan accordingly.

Bon Appetit!

Being informed of your own eating habits and preferences, and how those will work into what your school offers, will avoid much confusion later. Plan now so that you can focus on your academics -- and, perhaps, your cute 8:00 a.m. lab partner! -- instead of your meal plan as the semester gets into full swing.