College Meal Plan vs. No Meal Plan: The Debate

By Lisa Rogak

Stumped on which meal plan to sign up for while in college? Weigh the pros and cons to find a plan that’s right for you.

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, is what you’re going to eat and what meal plan you’ll sign up for. 

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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. 

For freshmen, sophomores and beyond, the number of tiered meal plans offered in many schools can quickly become overwhelming, though. 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.

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

– Kevin Mejia

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, a SUNY Geneseo grad, 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. 

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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. The cost per meal can be especially high if you wind up selecting a plan that includes more meals than you eat in a semester as you typically pay for meals, even if you don’t eat them. For students who would like to cut down on their college costs, purchasing food and cooking could help considerably. 

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.

Interviews for this article were conducted in 2018.