How Do Student Meal Plans Work? - United Sports USA
How Do College Meal Plans Work?

So you want to go to college in America? When you are tallying up the costs of tuition and housing, don’t forget to add in the costs of meals too. Depending on where you go to college, you may be required to pay for a student meal plan. We will explain how college meal plans work exactly, how much meal plans cost, meal plan alternatives, and how meal plans can factor into your scholarship.


How Do College Meal Plans Work?

Virtually all colleges and universities in American offer some type of meal plan for students and faculty. Meals are generally served in a large dining hall with cafeteria-style service. To get into the college dining hall, you will have to swipe your student ID. You are usually allowed to bring non-student guests to the dining hall too but they will need to sign in. Then you grab a tray and fill it with whatever the campus cafeteria is offering that day for that meal. To pay for your meals, you just swipe your student ID or special dining card. The meal is automatically subtracted from your total allotment. Some plans prohibit you from using your plan to buy meals for other students.

Depending on the college, the meals can be truly gourmet or really terrible.   You might also find that the quality of the food varies depending on when you get to the dining hall. For example, if you arrive for breakfast early in the morning, you might have a large selection of fresh fruits, whole-grain breads, eggs, hams, cereals, and more. By the end of the breakfast period, there might not be much left other than some soggy eggs and mushy fruit.


Types of Meal Plans

Most colleges will offer various levels of meal plans. Here are some examples of typical meal plans:

  • Unlimited Meal Plans: These plans give you an unlimited number of meals per period, and also usually include a certain number of flex points.
  • 21 Meal Plans: These plans include 21 meals per week
  • 14 Meal Plans: These plans include 14 meals per week
  • Off Campus Meal Plans: These meal plans usually cover the entire quarter or semester and are not weekly. For example, it may include 25 meals which can be used anytime.
  • Flex Meal Plans: These plans include a certain number of meals as well as “flex” points which can be used for cash-free purchases, such as at campus vending machines or certain off-campus dining locations.

When choosing which meal plan is right for you, take into consideration your current eating habits and where you will be living. Do you usually just grab a granola bar for breakfast? Then you probably don’t need a meal plan which includes breakfast. If you will be living in a dorm which doesn’t have a kitchen or refrigerator, then you’ll probably need a more inclusive meal plan. Or, if you will be living in an apartment and actually like to cook, then you can save money by skipping the meal plan altogether.

*Note that the meal plans can include a lot of restrictions, such as the 21 per week meal plan only allowed 3 meals per day, so you wouldn’t be able to get two dinners.


Are Students Required to Buy a Meal Plan?

Many colleges in America require students to buy a meal plan during their freshman year, and some also require a meal plan for students who are living in the dorms. The supposed reason behind this is that colleges don’t want their students to go hungry and requiring meal plans ensures that the students have access to food. However, the meal plan requirement is very controversial and students in many schools have protested it. New Jersey (unsuccessfully) even tried to pass a law banning meal plan requirements.

Even if you aren’t required to have a meal plan and didn’t buy one, you might be surprised to get charged a “fee” for the dining hall. This is what happened to one University of Tennessee study. Despite the fact that he always eats at home (off campus), the university still sent him a $300 per semester bill. (Story here)

If you are required to buy a meal plan, there is little you can do about it. However, you can look into whether the college has any scholarships which specifically cover the costs of meal plans.


How Much Do College Meal Plans Cost?

It is surprisingly hard to find information about how much college meal plans cost. Some colleges don’t publish this information publically on their websites – only students with IDs can log in to see the costs.  The costs can also vary drastically depending on the college. For example, meal plans at some private colleges can cost more than $3,000 per semester.

Here are some examples of meal plan costs:

University of Chicago

  • Unlimited Meal Plan: $5,880 per year
  • Two meals per day: $5,880 per year
  • 1 meal per day: $4,551 per year

University of Maryland, Baltimore County

  • Unlimited Meal Plan: $4,252 per year
  • Two meals per day: $4,026 per year

University of Tennessee, Nashville

  • Unlimited Meal Plan: $3,798 per year
  • 10 meals per week: $3,556 per year

Ithaca College

  • Unlimited Meal Plan: $6,822 per year
  • Two meals per day: $6,702 per year
  • 10 meals per week: $6,580 per year

West Chester University

  • Unlimited Meal Plan: $3,279 per year
  • Two meals per day: $2,653 per year

When looking at the costs of these college meal plans, bear in mind that they are for school year and not for the entire year. Also, the dining halls often close during school breaks (such as winter and spring breaks). That means your student meal plan only covers about 8 months.

Do the math and you’ll see that each meal under the meal plan costs about $5 to $11 each. If you are using the meal plan to the maximum, then it might end up being a good deal. However, it isn’t likely that you will use every single meal included in your plan. You’ll sometimes eat off campus, or there may be restrictions which limit you from using the meal plan how you’d like.

Meal Plan Alternatives

Buying a student meal plan is going to add a huge cost to your education. If the meal plan isn’t required, you might want to consider an alternative.

The obvious alternative to student meal plans would be to cook your own food. This ends up being much cheaper, but unfortunately isn’t always possible. Many dorms don’t have cooking facilities or refrigerators, and some even ban appliances like toaster ovens in dorm rooms.   You’d have to rely on snack food and takeout, which can end up being much costlier than the meal plan (not to mention contribute to the “freshman 15” — the weight which many students put on during their first year).

Since many universities often require living on-campus during the first year, your options as a freshman will be really limited. By your second year though, you can really save money on food and housing by finding an apartment which has a kitchen.  Learn more about college housing options here.


Meal Plans for Scholarship Students

If you have been offered a scholarship to a college or university in the United States, make sure you inquire about whether it covers meals. You might even be able to negotiate with the college to get free meals as part of the scholarship.

There is good news for NCAA student athletes too. Under the old NCAA rules, colleges were restricted in what food they could give students. For example, they were only allowed to offer 3-per-day meal plans and not unlimited plans, and certain snacks. Now colleges and universities can give student athletes unlimited meal plans, any type of snack, and additional meals at their discretion. If you have been offered an athletic scholarship, talk to your recruiter about how to negotiate with the college to get more meal perks included.