Stumped on which meal plan to sign up for while in college? Let’s weigh the pros and cons.

When it comes to college life, there are a million decisions you have to make, from declaring a major to figuring out a weekly budget for incidentals. One of the most important decisions though involves what you’re going to eat, and what meal plan you’ll sign up for.

The Freshman Feed

The first year is pretty simple: Most colleges require freshmen to live on campus and sign up for a meal plan. In a year that can be pretty tumultuous, a meal plan is one less thing to think about — you show up, swipe a card and eat. Plus, it provides some downtime along with plenty of opportunities to make friends.

Clelia Sweeney appreciated her required meal plan at Bard College during freshman year. “Don’t assume that you’ll be able to take care of yourself in that kind of adult way at that point, because the first year of college is really hard and involves a lot of independence,” she says. The plan was especially important since Bard is in a small town where dining alternatives are limited and Clelia didn’t have a car.

For freshmen, sophomores and beyond, the number of tiered meal plans offered in many schools can quickly become overwhelming. So before you choose a meal plan — or decide to forgo it altogether — it’s important to take stock of your dining preferences, restrictions and schedule, along with your cooking ability.

To Cook or Not to Cook?

If you don’t like to cook — or don’t want to — the decision is easy. But if you want to prepare at least a few of your own meals, try to scope out the kitchen facilities in your dorm in advance. While some feature chef-quality equipment, with others you’d be lucky to find a functioning microwave. Kevin Mejia graduated from SUNY Geneseo in 2014 and signed up for the meal plan in his first two years on campus even though he didn’t like the food and would have preferred to cook for himself. The reason? His dorm kitchen was suboptimal, he says. Regardless of cooking facilities, many students opt for a limited meal plan — such as one with 10 meals a week — so they can prepare or take out some of their own meals.

“Being able to cook for yourself is part of growing up while you are in college.”

Kevin Mejia, SUNY Geneseo

The size of your school can also influence your choice. If your college has numerous dining halls across campus and your plan allows you to spend part of your budget at off-campus food shops, restaurants and even food trucks, then the greater variety of options increases the odds that the quality and food selection can make a plan the right choice.

Most college dining facilities offer specialized menu options for students with allergies and sensitivities, as well as vegetarian, vegan and other dietary choices. The dining halls at many larger universities offer a greater variety than most restaurants when it comes to gluten-free and Paleo diets — and everything in between.

But if you want to know exactly what’s in the food you eat, it’s still best to buy and prepare meals yourself. Besides, it provides good training for when you get out in the real world and you’re really on your own.

“Being able to cook for yourself is part of growing up while you are in college,” says Mejia, adding that it’s a good idea to develop some culinary chops in college so you’re well-seasoned once you’re out on your own.

Is the Price Right?

Food quality aside, the biggest downside of most college meal plans is cost. They  are more expensive than buying your own food and cooking it yourself. For students who would like to cut down on their college costs, purchasing food and cooking could help considerably. Sweeney wishes she had done so. “I lived on campus for all four of my college years and stayed on the meal plan as well. Looking back on it, I would have definitely saved money if I hadn’t done either of those things,” she says. Trouble was, she was intimidated by the idea of living independently and cooking for herself. “So I just stuck with the easier, more expensive option.”    

Plus, it’s easy to purchase the wrong plan, which can lead to problems. When Sweeney transferred to DePaul University her junior year, the meal plan she selected was insufficient. Toward the end of the quarter, her balance ran low, and she had to use her own money to buy food. “[It] was insanely overpriced,” she recalls, “like in an airport.”

In the end, opting for a meal plan — or none — will be only one of the many trial-and-error experiences of your college career, leaving you well-prepared for entering the real world upon graduation.