College Meal Plans
College Meal Plans
Ruslan Mitin /

Residential colleges recognize that students are too busy with classes, jobs, and extracurricular activities to cook every single meal for themselves. To help students focus on their schoolwork, these schools offer meal plans. Meal plans are prepaid accounts that give students access to campus dining facilities. They are optional at some schools and mandatory at others. If your school offers meal plans, you can often choose between several different ones, so you should take care to select the right one for you.

Do I have to buy a meal plan if I live on campus?

Unless you live in a campus apartment or townhome with a private kitchen, on-campus housing policies usually require students to purchase meal plans. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you’re going to live in a dorm, your room won’t be equipped with a kitchen or kitchenette. Many dorm buildings have kitchens on each floor, but some will only have one communal kitchen shared among all residents. It isn’t realistic to assume that you’ll have uninterrupted access to your dorm’s kitchen facilities at all mealtimes. If you are still concerned, check with your school. It may offer minimal meal plans that better suit your eating habits.

If you have any dietary restrictions, severe allergies, or an illness or disability that requires you to closely moderate or cook your own meals, reach out to the residential life office. If you live on campus, you may have the option to skip purchasing a meal plan altogether if your health or safety is threatened. Be honest (wanting to cook your own meals isn’t a sufficient reason) and bring supporting documents to legitimize your claim. Your college will work with you to create a meal option that meets your requirements.

May I buy a meal plan if I live off campus?

If you live off campus, you don’t have to buy a meal plan, but you certainly can if you want to. Though you have your own kitchen in your apartment, you may decide that cooking all of your meals is too much of a commitment. If mealtimes are interfering with your class or work schedule, you might opt for a minimal meal plan. This may be enough to get you lunch on campus each day of the week or given you a certain number of meals per semester. Typically, colleges will also let you pay by the meal; if you planned to eat lunch at home but find yourself stuck on campus, for example, you can use cash to get into the dining hall even if you’re not on a meal plan. Some schools even offer dining options specifically for students and other members of the college community who live nearby.

How do meal plans work?

Meal plans work differently at different schools. Generally, your meal plan balance is loaded directly onto your student ID or other electronic card.

Some plans are simple: You load money onto your card at the beginning of the semester ($3,000, for example) and swipe the card when you check out of the dining hall. You are charged a set price for each item you purchase (e.g., $5.00 for a sandwich and $2.00 for a cup of soup). With a dwindling balance at the end of the semester, you can always add more money to your card.

Other plans do not charge students for each individual food item. Instead, you may purchase a set number of meals (170 meals per semester, for example). Each time you enter an all-you-can-eat campus dining facility, whether you eat five plates or one, one meal is deducted from your balance.

It’s common for schools to combine both types of meal plans. While you may pay with dining dollars when you buy a breakfast scone from the campus coffee shop, you may deduct a meal point when you enter a dining hall for lunch. Check with your chosen school to see how its meal plans work.

What size are meal plans?

No matter how your college administers dining dollars or points, you can usually choose the size of the meal plan you want.

  • Standard plans are the most popular for students living on campus. They assume that students will eat in a dining facility two to three times a day. If you occasionally eat breakfast in your room or go out to restaurants on the weekends, the standard plan is for you.
  • Minimal plans are intended for students who often eat in their rooms or travel away from campus on weekends. You may only get five or 10 weekly meals on a minimal plan.
  • Plus plans are great options for students who plan to eat all three of their meals in the dining hall most days of the semester. Expect to get around 20 meals a week on a plus plan.
  • Off-campus or community plans are offered to professors and students who live off campus but don’t feel like cooking every single meal. Instead of getting a set number of weekly meals, you may only get 10 or 20 meals for the entire term.

Do I get any guest meals with my meal plan?

If you buy a meal plan, you are usually awarded several guest swipes that you can use if friends or family come to visit you. The exact number of guest meals you have depends on your school and the size of the meal plan you choose. Check with your college if you want to know more.

How do I decide which meal plan is right for me?

It’s daunting to choose the right meal plan: You don’t want to lose money, but you don’t want to go hungry either. Your meal plan will determine where, what, and how often you eat on campus for the next semester, so ask yourself the following questions.

  • How often do you eat?
  • Do you have dietary restrictions or food allergies? If so, do the dining facilities offer options for you?
  • If you are commuting, will you need to stay on campus for extended periods of time? If so, you may want to purchase a meal plan so that you have a place to reenergize and grab a quick lunch.
  • Do you like eating in a dining hall? Big universities have more options than small liberal arts colleges, which may only have a dining hall and a campus café. Universities have multiple dining halls. They may also have food courts or allow you to use meal points at local franchises. In these cases, different campus currencies (meal points or dining dollars) are designated to each dining facility.
  • Do you like going out and getting off campus? The fewer meals you eat on campus, the less you should spend on a meal plan.
  • Is your schedule fixed or flexible? Being involved in extracurricular activities or having a job can restrict the times you may be able to eat.
  • What are your college’s dining hours? Will they interfere with your class schedule? Some colleges offer students the option to get a meal to-go. Instead of swiping into the dining hall, you visit a kiosk or counter nearby and get a prepacked meal (sandwiches and wraps are common). If you need to eat quickly or want to bring your lunch to class, this can ensure you use your meal points and get fed.

A good rule of thumb for freshmen is this: Start with the standard plan. You can always upgrade or add more meal points later in the semester. On the other hand, if you have a dozen leftover meals at the end of midterms, downgrade your plan for the following semester. Check the meal plan policies at your school, too. You may find that certain meal plans are off limits to you based on where you live or that first-semester freshmen are required to be on a particular plan.

What happens if I use all my meal points?

If you didn’t buy enough meals, you can always add more. At some schools, you may be able to recharge your balance online. Check with your school to find out how you can add more points to your account and whether there are any restrictions or policies you should know about (e.g., you may be able to add dining dollars for use at the campus café anytime but might not be able to add additional dining hall meals after a certain date).

Be aware that at some schools, adding extra meals is more costly than purchasing a larger plan to begin with. If you consistently need to add extra meals as the semester ends, consider purchasing a larger plan for the next academic period.

What if I don’t use all my meal points?

Unfortunately, unused meal points usually expire at the end of the semester or the year and generally won’t be refunded. Some schools have implemented policies, however, that allow students to donate their unused meal points to students who would otherwise go hungry. If you’re left with too many meals toward the end of the semester, then, consider donating them instead of letting the money go to waste. Then, choose a smaller plan next term so that you aren’t continuing to spend money unnecessarily.

How much does a meal plan cost?

To estimate how much a standard meal plan will cost at your college per year, divide the cost of room and board by two. You can find these figures on your school’s website. Specific meal plan information and costs may also be available. For a general idea of meal plans for freshmen, note that the University of Tennessee charges $2,115 for an unlimited number of meals each week, $300 dining dollars for the semester, and five guest meals. Vanderbilt University, on the other hand, charges $2,933 for three meals per day, $200 dining dollars for the semester, and five guest meals. Generally, the smaller the meal plan, the lower the price, but you may find that opting for a smaller plan doesn’t save you as much money as you might expect.

Page last updated: 02/2019