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How To Choose the Right Meal Plan for Your Budget

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Once you are accepted to college, it’s time to make some other logistical choices. Many students don’t even consider choosing a meal plan as a major choice. However, choosing the wrong meal plan can either leave you tossing money out the window or leave you feeling famished. Both of those are choices you will want to avoid. This is especially true when you are working out a realistic budget. So, when considering your room and board (board is your food!), keep the following facts and questions in mind.

Basic Meal Plan Facts

The average 8-month meal plan costs about $4,500, although they can be much higher at certain schools. Additionally, some schools may allow meal plans to be used in not only the dining hall, but in other local or on-campus restaurants, food courts, or cafes. Those students living on and off-campus will need to consider this. For those living on campus, this expense will generally be put on your tuition bill as the “board” portion of room and board.


If you are a student who will be commuting from off-campus or taking some online classes, you will likely be cooking more meals on your own than visiting the dining hall. This is not always the case though. For example, maybe you are taking 5 or 6 classes on-campus. You may actually have several days that you are on-campus and need to take that into consideration. Check out meal plan options for your specific needs.


There are many different “levels” of meal plans. For example, some schools offer a light, medium, or heavy meal plan. The heavy meal plan may have up to 21 meals per week meaning that you will have access to three full meals per day. Some schools base their meal plans on a point system and others provide it as a “per meal” system. Those that are point-based will usually have an average point scale per meal that you can use to calculate how many points you need.


Meals may be available at specific times. For example, if you are a night owl rather than an early riser, you may not choose early classes or be up in time for breakfast hours. If breakfast ends long before you open your eyes, you may want to consider a medium meal plan. Perhaps you will be dining mostly for lunch and dinner in the dining hall.


Many schools will not let you change your meal plan after a certain amount of time. Others may allow you to “add points” if they go by a point-based system. If you realize you are not using all of your meals, it may be in your best interest to go down a level on your plan. Maybe you realize you thrive better when you have a full breakfast. Find out if you can change your meal plan so you know how much time you have to evaluate your choice.


Ask Yourself the Following 5 Questions When Choosing the Right Meal Plan:


1. Do I have any dietary restrictions and will I need to supplement with a good amount of food shopping to meet those needs?

Keep in mind that you may have dietary needs that your school may be unprepared to meet. Are you practicing a kosher lifestyle? Does the dining hall have enough vegetarian or vegan options? These are things to consider so you can make the best decision for your needs. Perhaps you purchase a smaller meal plan and use the remainder of your meal budget grocery shopping for specialty foods.


2. Am I a full-time or part-time student?
It’s important to consider how often you will be on-campus. If you are a full-time student you may spend more time in classes. In this case, it’s helpful to ask yourself what time your classes are. You may have classes during the breakfast time frame that the dining hall and cafes are open. If this is the case, you can opt for a smaller meal plan, but bring a breakfast bar, yogurt, or fruit with you from your dorm. If you are a part-time student, you may actually need a smaller meal plan or not need one at all. The opposite could also be true. You could spend just as much time on campus studying and pursuing your education as a full-time student. In this case you may want to purchase a heavy meal plan instead of a commuter meal plan.


3. Will I be on campus on the weekends or going home?

Consider whether you are planning to go home and visit each weekend (maybe your mom promised to do your laundry if she could see your face every weekend and it’s an offer you can’t refuse!) The largest meal plan may take into account three meals per day, seven days per week. If this is the case and you know you will not likely be eating at the dining hall more than three times per day, then choose a smaller plan. If you live far from home or do not plan on coming home at all on the weekends, then you will make your selection accordingly.


4. Do I usually eat three full meals per day?
Think about your general habits. If you do not necessarily eat three full meals per day now, you likely won’t in college either. Maybe you do because of medical necessity or you are an athlete, so your appetite is big. If this is the case, you will likely not see any drastic changes in your meal habits. Keep your current lifestyle in mind and consider your future classes and extracurricular activities. Some colleges will allow you to roll over your excess meals or points and others require you to use them all by the end of the semester. This is another thing to ponder when choosing a meal plan, but being unsure if you will use all of the meals.


5. What type of dorm will I have?

Make sure to think about your college living setup. Some colleges offer suites where there are full kitchen facilities located in the main kitchen and living area of a dorm. If this is the case maybe you will be cooking dinners with your roommates a few days out of the week. Others are simply basic dorm rooms where you will not have direct access to cooking facilities. In this case, also consider if your school allows you to have a microwave, hot plate, or toaster oven. Most will allow small dorm-style fridges, but double check to see what you will have available. Then consider the cost and your budget of getting a smaller meal plan, but cooking one meal at your dorm each day. Can you get away with a smaller meal plan, but purchase yogurts, oatmeal, and fruit for the mornings?

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