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How to Pick the Right Meal Plan

Have you considered all these factors to find the plan that fits your budget and your appetite?

Living in the dorms is great. You’re often closer to classes than commuter parking lots, you have a built-in social network, and the price can be hard to beat. The downside might be the food. You have limited if any access to a way to make your own meals. Often schools require those living on campus to have a meal plan.

But picking the right meal plan can be difficult. There are a lot of variables to consider, like are you a student-athlete, do you like to snack, are you a picky eater, or do you get bored with certain food? Find out what you can do to keep costs down.

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Almost every school is going to require students living on campus to have a meal plan, with the average cost of a meal plan at $4,500. That’s a pretty big chunk of change on top of tuition, housing, books, and other expenses. There are a few things you need to think about before picking a meal plan for you.

  1. Will you have access to a kitchen? Some schools have a small kitchen on every floor. Some schools have them in students’ suites. You can cheaply supplement your diet by making your own food
  2. What appliances are allowed in the dorm? It can vary from a fridge to microwaves to hot plates.
  3. How easily can you access other sources of food? If your school isn’t near a grocery store, your options are limited from the start.
  4. How much do you eat? If you have three big meals a day, you’ll need more meals per week. If you often just snack for a meal or there’s something you can eat in your dorm, your options open up for savings.

Gym class

Division 1 student-athletes are required by the NCAA to be provided with full meal plans. So if you’re a student-athlete, even without a scholarship, you’ll save some money.

Lower divisions are different. Schools get money from the NCAA and it’s then the discretion of the school on how that money is used on athletes and sports programs.

If you’re an active student, maybe no longer a current athlete but still in the gym most days, you’re on your own. Look at the options for food on campus and off. Decide what is going to be best for your nutrition goals.

Snack time

Most schools have a per-swipe system, meaning your meal count is really the number of times you enter the cafeteria. If you want a quick snack, maybe a piece of fruit, then you have to sacrifice a full meal in its place. A banana isn’t worth the cost of the swipe.

If you can sneak out a few pieces of fruit or a cup of yogurt when you do eat a full meal, do it. If that’s still not enough to cover your snacking, or your cafeteria has a strict policy about removing food, supplement with things you can keep in your room. Anything that can be enjoyed without cooking is a good choice.

Picky eater

If you’re a picky eater or have a restrictive diet, you might be able to work with food services to find the right options for you, especially if they’re health-related. If you’re just a picky eater, minimize your meal plan and find options that work for you.


Picking a meal plan might not seem like the most important thing when the school year starts. Classes, majors, where to live, buying books—all of it is stressful and needs your attention. But food and nutrition are important, too. A good diet can help you succeed in school.

Look at how you eat now: what are your patterns, does the cafeteria offer a menu you like? What other options do you have? You don’t need to make a choice right away. Call and ask questions, find out all of your options, then make a choice on how to spend your money.