Helping Your College Student Select a Meal Plan

Choosing Among Meal Plan Choices

Colleges meal plans are one of the priciest yet controllable expenses in the paying for college universe. The average 3-meals per day meal plan averages $4,500 per academic year according to the Hechinger Report. that’s $18.75 per day. Imagine how much food you could buy for almost $20 per day. Luckily, there are a few ways to reduce costs.

Find out the Mandatory Meal Plan Policy

College students living on campus must choose a meal plan.  However, schools may vary in size and process of meal plan mandates. For instance, one school may mandate one meal per day while another mandates three.

Buy a Dorm Fridge

A small fridge in your student’s dorm room can be stocked with fruit, cereal, and yogurts to avoid buying breakfast. Add greek yogurt, bread, and deli meat, and some lunches can be made in their own room.

Know your Student

Find Out What the Meal Actually Is

School meal plans often have varying levels.  If the plan is a “per meal” plan, the student gets a certain number of meals per week or per semester.  This type of plan usually charges the student a set amount per breakfast, lunch, or dinner with an “all you can eat” policy.  Other plans, may provide the student a certain weekly or semester dollar amount. Then, each item the student purchases is deducted from their total semester meal allowance. Many meal plans also include a certain number of “points” or dollars that can be spent in campus snack bars or cafes, campus convenience stores, or certain off-campus restaurants.

Ask questions about policies for meal plans.

If your student gets a set number of dollars or meals per week or semester, will unused meals be carried to the next week or semester?  Some plans don’t allow carryover. Other plans allow students to carry over unused meals or dollars to the next week or the next semester, which means students can buy a smaller plan the next semester. Money is seldom, if ever, refunded for remaining meal plan balances.

Can my student change plans during the semester? If the answer is yes, you have much more flexibility if the plan is too big or too small to change it if you over or underestimated how often your student will eat in the cafeteria.

Some plans let students spend unused dollars in campus convenience stores at the end of the semester or year.  Students are sometimes seen leaving campus with cases of soda or snacks or even hamburgers or steaks.  Some schools give students the option to  allow to donate unused dollars at the end of the year to local food pantries.

Consider eating habits and schedule.

Students should carefully consider their eating habits and schedule. Does your student always eat breakfast or never eat anything before noon?  Will they do an internship off campus several days a week?  Will your student be coming home every weekend or eat meals on campus seven days a week?  Is your student a big snacker who will be visiting the snack bar often?  Will he have guests on campus often?  Does the meal plan allow for guests?  Will your student eat out or order pizza or takeout more than once per week? Honestly answering lifestyle questions helps determine an appropriate plan.

Consider Commuting or Dietary Needs

Most schools require a meal plan for resident students. Some schools offer an optional plan for commuter students.  If your student is commuting from your home or an off campus apartment, will they be on campus near a dining hall often?   How does the cost of the meal plan compare to restaurant dining?

If your student is a resident student, but is doing an internship that will have her off campus at lunch time, find out whether there is a “take out” option.  Some dining halls prepare boxed meals-to-go.

If your student has any dietary restrictions, ask the school about options for them.  Vegetarian meals, vegan meals, low calorie, and gluten free meals are becoming much more common.  Other restrictions may be accommodated if requested.

Be realistic and flexible.

Purchasing a meal plan is one of the biggest economic and lifestyle choices families make. Plan carefully considering all pricing options, alternative food choices, dietary restrictions, and the student’s lifestyle. You’ll save hundreds to thousands per year and possibly have a healthier, happier student.