Every school calculates the cost of meals as the “board” piece of “room and board” for the cost of attendance. Once you leave home, you have a major decision about the method and plan for your “board.”
Almost every college and university offers meal plans, but each meal plan can be as different as the college itself. Typically, meal plans are prepaid and either based on swiping a student ID or electronic card for a meal based on dollars, meal type, or points. For some plans, you may be able to just load your ID or card with money and then swipe the card based on your items purchased in the dining facilities. Whereas other meal plans may be based on a number of meals per week or per enrollment period (e.g., 170 meals for the semester).
Luckily most colleges and universities have a variety of meal plans. In fact, some even require that students living in certain types of on campus housing must select one of their meal plans. This is not a bad thing, especially because many dormitories don’t even have an available kitchen facility for students.
According to the Hechinger Report, the average college and university charges about $4,500, or $18.75 per day, for a three-meal-a-day dining contract for typical 9-month academic year. With that sort of price tag, it’s important to think about your food needs and habits before selecting a plan.
Frequency of Eating
Are you a two or three meals a day person? For those who only eat two meals a day, check into whether there is an 14-meal plan option. This may also be good for the person who wants to build into their budget purchasing the skinny latte from their favorite brasserie. If you are more of a standard three meals a day person, then check out the meal plan that will accommodate you.
If you are living off campus, are you the type of person who will brown bag it? Do you want the convenience eating with others in your study group at dining hall? Would you prefer to grab a smoothie to tied you over off campus until your next meal at your apartment? Understanding your preferences ahead of time can help you decide if opting into a “light” meal plan may good math.
Timing of Meals
Are your meals eating during traditional time periods or are you on a belly time clock (e.g., eat when your belly wants food). Some meal plans are based on very conventional business hours for the dining services facilities. If based on your class, extracurricular, or work schedules, you may want to choose a more flexible meal plan.
Love the Restaurant Experience
Do you frequent your local pizzeria twice a week? Do you just have a hankering for a great burger late at night? Consider whether or not you need as large of a on-campus meal plan if you know that you are going to consistently be using out of pocket money to buy meals out. If you are eating out a lot, make certain you create a weekly, monthly or enrollment period budget so that you don’t get into a financial crisis based on your burger cravings.
If you any specific food allergies, dietary restrictions, or ailment that requires a specific diet, don’t panic. You will not be the first student who has had to face this challenge. Make certain you reach out to the dining services to ensure how your needs can be met. Be prepared to be asked for documentation of your dietary needs with medical records.
Many colleges and universities are doing more and more to safe food options for students with dietary disabilities. Food Allergies and Research Education (FARE) partners with schools across the nation to report on their food allergy and celiac disease accommodations on campus. See if your school is a part of the FARE college network to learn more about how they label their ingredients, lower the risk of cross contact, train their dining services state, and create more options for students on meal plans.
Colleen MacDonald Krumwiede is a financial aid expert with over a decade of financial aid experience at Stanford GSB, Caltech, and Pomona College and another decade at educational finance and technology companies servicing higher education. She guides go-to-market strategy and product development at Pay4 to transform the way families afford college.