Are College Meal Plans Worth It? Pros and Cons

If you are a college student, you have probably considered signing up for a meal plan. Sometimes colleges require meal plans for freshmen, but some do not. Is the price of a college meal plan worth what you get?

College meal plans are typically not worth it. The price of meal plans differs between colleges—it can be anywhere from $400-$3,000 a semester. In comparison, a student who purchases their own groceries will spend $600-$1,000 a semester. However, the choice depends on lifestyle, commute, and diet.

Whether you get your college’s meal plan or not is up to you and your specific circumstances. We will go over the benefits and drawbacks of college meals plans so you can choose for yourself.

College Meal Plans: The Basics

College meal plans are, in essence, a way for college students to get enough food when they are unable to cook for themselves.

Some college students can’t cook for themselves because they don’t have time to cook, don’t know how to cook, or can’t grocery shop. There are so many reasons why a college student might need help eating three meals a day, and college meal plans are the biggest solution to that.

Meal plans typically consist of a certain number of swipes or points and a set amount of flex dollars. The swipes are used to get a student into the dining hall where they have several options for their meal. This means they can go in and pick any dish from the options.

Some colleges let students eat all they want once they are in the dining hall. Others use points to let a student know how many meals they have left for that week. When you get a meal from the dining hall, it counts toward your set amount of meals.

The other part of college meal plans is the flex dollars. This is a set amount of money that comes with the meal plan per semester. This money can only be spent at small restaurants or cafes on campus. Essentially, it is for the student to be able to eat in-between meal times.

Both the flex money and swipes or points are a set amount and are nonrefundable for the semester. You can usually add more of anything, swipes, flex money, etc., onto your meal card for an added cost if you need more during the semester.

Not Buying the Meal Plan

Buying a college meal plan is not always optional, and many colleges require at least freshmen, if not all students, to pick a meal plan when they come to school.

Assuming you are not required to have a meal plan, then you have the option to buy your own groceries and cook for yourself instead. Here are all of the facets of this option, from budgeting to equipment.

  • It costs less: The first big benefit of buying your own food is that it will cost much less than most college meal plans. You will spend half as much as any of the separate meal plans, which is great for students who are already in debt. While other responsibilities come with feeding yourself, saving money is such a great benefit; you should really consider it.
  • You have to know what you need: When you buy your own groceries, you do have to know what you need. This could mean making a meal plan for the week and getting the ingredients you need, or it could mean having a list of ingredients you use and replenishing them when you run out. Either way, you have to think about what you are buying because you need to eat well-rounded meals
  • You have to budget: Buying your own food comes with the responsibility of budgeting. You have to know how much money you have so you can plan out a reasonable amount to spend on each grocery trip. This way you won’t accidentally spend too much on groceries and not have enough for rent or books.
  • You have to cook: Not every student knows how to cook, and this can be a huge issue when it comes to making your own food. However, cooking can be learned, and there are a ton of easy college recipes for you to follow.
  • You can have what you want: If you do know how to cook, you can make whatever you are craving, provided you have the ingredients. This way, you do not get sick of the dining hall meals, and when you want soup, you can have soup.
  • You have to do dishes: In addition to cooking, you also have to do your own dishes. If you don’t keep up with the dishes, you will have a messy apartment or dorm. Doing dishes takes time as well, and it is another chore you might have to plan to accomplish in between your busy schedule.
  • You can eat whenever: When you make your own food and do your own shopping, you will have food available to you during all hours of the day and night. You don’t have to eat during designated meal times, and you will always have those late-night snacks that you crave.

Different Types of Meal Plans

At each college, there are usually different options for meal plans. Some of them give you more meals and fewer flex dollars, while others have unlimited meals but are very expensive.

Some meal plans are completely separate from other costs of college, and others are included or an add-on to your housing price. Each kind of meal plan comes with its own aspects to consider.

Included with Your Housing

If the meal plans at your college are included with your housing or are just an add-on to it, you might want to consider getting a meal plan. This kind of offer is available at colleges with on-campus dorm housing.

Because you are paying the college to live there, they do not require the extra cost of a meal plan. Instead, the housing prices are a bit higher but the meal plan is included. A better version of the meal plan might even be available for only a couple hundred extra dollars added to your housing fees.

If a meal plan is not included with your housing for whatever reason, it can add an extra $2,000 to your college costs.

Different Ratios of Meals and Flex Dollars

With most colleges, there are several options for meal plans. Some give you more meals and fewer flex dollars, while others give you a ton of meals, even unlimited meals, and fewer flex dollars.

They all cost different prices as well, so which one is the best?

Unless you eat a ton of food daily, you should stick to meal plans with 7-12 meals per week, Monday through Saturday, and a normal amount of flex dollars, about $150-$300 depending on your eating habits. This way, you won’t waste money from not using all of your meals or flex dollars, but you will also have plenty of meals available to you.

Related Article: Is Work-Study Worth It?

Pros of Buying a Meal Plan

While generally, college meal plans are not worth it, they do have their benefits, and we are going to cover the most impactful benefits for any college meal plan. Some of the biggest benefits of a college meal plan are not needing to cook, it saves time, and you don’t have to grocery shop.

You Don’t Have to Cook

There are a lot of reasons why college students would prefer to avoid cooking during the semester. Some students don’t know how to cook and can’t make many different dishes.

Others don’t have time to spend cooking. Finally, many students living in dorms with available meal plans do not have access to a kitchen in the first place.

College meal plans solve the problems that come with cooking your own meals. There are a bunch of different options for hot food during meal times, so you don’t need to learn how to cook, and you can eat delicious, well-balanced meals at the swipe of a card.

It Saves Time

College students are known to be incredibly busy, and it is already difficult enough to get all of your homework done, take care of yourself, and have a social life without needing to spend time cooking and doing dishes.

Shopping and cooking for yourself take time, and very few college students have the time for that.

With a meal plan, you just have to show up and eat. It is quick, easy, and already paid for, so you don’t have to think about anything besides which option appeals to you. You can even just go get food and then study in the dining hall. And now you don’t have to do the dishes afterward either!

You Don’t Have to Grocery Shop

The final big pro of a college meal plan is that students don’t have to go grocery shopping. Grocery shopping can take up a lot of time because you not only need to go to the store and get everything, but you also have to plan for what you need and budget your shopping.

In addition to a lot more responsibility on your plate as a college student, you also have to make sure you can commute to the grocery store.

Not all students have cars in college, so the store needs to be within walking distance, or you need to have another way of getting there, such as a ride from a friend, a city bus, or even a bike with a basket.

Cons of Buying a Meal Plan

While there are plenty of helpful aspects of a college meal plan, they are not always the best option. Some drawbacks of purchasing a college meal plan are your limited choices, the dining hall is not open 24/7, and it is expensive.

Limited Choices

While college dining halls serve several options for each meal, not all of them switch it up. If your college does not switch up the meal options, then you will get bored of them eventually.

No matter how much you switch up the meal you choose, you are bound to be craving something different as time goes on, and that can drive you to eat at a restaurant outside of campus, which will cost you even more money.

When you cook for yourself, you can prepare what you want to prepare as long as you plan to have the ingredients, not to mention that those with diet restrictions often only get one or two options at dining halls which can be very tiring after just a few days.

Dining Is Not Always Available

When you cook and grocery shop for yourself, you will always have something you can eat, even in the wee hours of the morning. The problem with a meal plan is that the dining hall does close, and they usually close pretty early—around 7 or 8 pm.

This can be difficult for students that were not able to make it to dinner in time because they had something else going on. For college students, it is not very realistic for them to only eat during meal times, as many are up late doing homework or socializing and will get hungry, but won’t have anything to eat.

It Is Expensive

The biggest problem with college meal plans is how expensive they are. While the ones that are included in your housing fees might just be worth it, most are not like that, and they can cost a lot of extra money.

Buying groceries for yourself during the semester will only cost you $600-$1,000, but it is pretty unlikely to reach that highest amount. Meal plans usually cost at least twice as much as that, usually more.

The amount of extra money you will spend on a meal plan is usually way too much, even if you use all of your meals and flex dollars perfectly. If you want complete control over how much money you spend on food, then a meal plan is not the choice for you.

Related Article: Can You Refuse A College Meal Plan [Rules and Regulations]


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the College Reality Check.

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