Choose a meal plan (or not) that is best for your college budget

Stephanie Kinkaid Assistant Director of the Wackerle Career and Leadership Center Monmouth College

You’ve been accepted to college, you’re getting ready for classes, and you’re probably moving into the dorm or residence hall—or maybe you’re a commuter! This is an exciting time and whether you’re on campus or commuting onto campus each day, this means figuring out a new way of living. One of those changes will be how you feed yourself, so it’s time to look at what kind of a meal plan—if one at all—you’re going to choose.

This will require some research and asking the right questions: What is offered? Do you even need one? How can you customize your plan to make the most of your money? Follow this advice to figure out what you will need, what you can get, and how to put your meal plan and your money to its best use.


Do research your options

Are you required to purchase a meal plan? Does your college offer different meal plans? Does it allow for special dietary needs? Do you need to purchase meals, or can you purchase items a la carte? Does the plan follow a meals-per-day or meals-per-semester system, or is it a debit card system with dollars loaded?

There are lots of questions you need to make sure you get answered before making a decision. Figure out costs and meal plan options before deciding on the plan that is best for you. Most colleges have this information available on the website, but don’t hesitate to talk to someone at the college for advice. 

Do look at the number of meals offered

Do you eat breakfast every day? If not, maybe you need to purchase a plan that allows for only two meals per day. Do your research, however, since some colleges offer plans that are nearly identical in cost regarding two meals versus three meals per day. If the cost is similar or the same, purchase the one that allows for more meals. Who knows? You may find that when you have an 8:00 A.M. class, breakfast prepared by someone else might be very tempting!

Do find out about special circumstances

If you are going to be working off-campus or travelling for your studies, make sure you aren’t purchasing meals you don’t need. If you have certain food allergies, you might be able to get an exemption from the requirement of purchasing a meal plan. Do you have access to a kitchen where you could cook some meals? If so, you might be able to save money by cooking yourself.

Do find out if dollars roll over

If you haven’t used all of your allotted meals by the end of the semester, can you roll over the extras for next semester? If you are a returning student and didn’t use all of your meals in the past, consider purchasing a smaller meal plan instead. 

Do be honest about your eating habits

If you do not eat breakfast or are used to just grabbing a quick bite to eat, consider saving money by limiting your number of meals. Maybe you are never on campus on weekends. If that’s the case, maybe you only need to purchase meals for five days of the week as opposed to seven days per week.


Do not forget to find out if you can change your plan

Ask if you can change your meal plan. If you start classes and find that you only need ten meals per week as opposed to twenty-one, see if you can change your plan. Many schools offer changes the first two weeks. Others might offer changes all semester while prorating your plan as you go. 

Do not ignore the start and end dates of the plan

Make sure you know when the plan starts and ends. You don’t want to find out that meals aren’t offered during breaks when the break starts. However, you might be able to save money by not purchasing meals for break times and cooking yourself. You also need to know if the plan offers meals from the first day you arrive until the last day of the semester.

Do not forget to ask about your eating location options

Is there only one main dining hall or do you have other options? Some campuses have dining facilities in all residence halls as well as outside vendors in the student union center. Does your meal plan offer the ability to eat anywhere you choose? Variety is the spice of life after all!

Do not neglect to ask about healthier options or allergy alternatives

Many students are very health-conscious and seek fresh food as well as low-fat and healthier options in lieu of corn dogs and chicken patties. Ask if there are options for a salad bar. Can you customize your meal options, or do you have a variety to choose from?

If you have food allergies, figure out—even before you agree to go to the school, if possible—if they can easily provide alternatives for students with food allergies. Food allergies are prevalent enough that campus dining services should have satisfying alternatives for those who need it. 

Do not think if you are commuter, you don’t have meal plan options

Many campuses allow commuters to purchase meal plans as well. Perhaps you eat lunch on campus every day in addition to the occasional evening meal. Find out if there is a flexible plan for commuters. Are there flex or dining dollars available that you can use anywhere on campus as well as with the outside vendors? Having a debit card system where meals or dollars are used may be a more viable option for you.

Jumping cartoon

Meal plan options can be confusing. But with the right amount of research, you can find a plan that is perfect for you and the money you’ll have to pay for it. Ask yourself honestly about eating habits and your ability/desire to cook in your room or apartment. You can choose a plan that works perfectly for your schedule and your budget.

More expert advice about Financing Education

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Stephanie KinkaidAssistant Director of the Wackerle Career and Leadership Center

Stephanie graduated from Illinois State University and has been employed with Monmouth College since 2007. She has a background as a mental health professional and has worked with thousands of college students as they prepare for the future. Her...

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