Paying for College

College Meal Plans

I remember the first time I ate in a college cafeteria. I was visiting a prospective campus with my Dad and part of our tour provided us with a lunch in the lower level of the (then) student union building. I noted that there wasn't a whole lot of difference between my high school cafeteria and this college's eating facilities. Maybe the kids were older and the tables and food offerings were a bit different, but overall things weren't much more exciting, as I had anticipated.

A couple decades later, when we took our first born to tour colleges, I was shocked to see how far the art of collegiate food service had come. The atmosphere was almost that of a restaurant, or at least a snazzy sidewalk cafe. There were several serving lines, each featuring various entrees, desserts, and beverages. A small army of courteous servers eagerly offered their goodies to ravenous, upbeat undergraduates. What a contrast to my tour lunch, where I stood in line like a boot camp recruit and slid components of the lunch of the day (no substitutions, thank you) onto my well worn tray. Just like high school.

So, those of you who are headed to your freshman year this fall will have to make a choice about meal plans. Most colleges offer at least several options. I've noticed that many college students tend to skip breakfast. That's not hard to understand. Why eat when sleep will do?

In any event, you may be wondering how to go about choosing the best and most cost-effective plan for your needs. There's certainly no shortage of information on that topic out there. Just Google "college meal plans" and see for yourself. One excellent article that I found is How To Select the Best College Meal Plan by Kelci Lynn. Here are a few excerpts:

How To Select the Best College Meal Plan

You've read through all the new material about your school. You know who your roommate is; you know what day you're moving in; you may have even thought about what to pack. But one thing that seems super confusing is the campus meal plan. How on earth do you figure out which one is best for you?
Research What Plans Your School Offers
College meal plans usually take one of several forms. You may get a certain number of "meals" per semester, meaning you can enter the dining hall a pre-set number of times and eat to your heart's content...
Think About Your Eating Habits
Be honest with yourself about your eating habits. If you are always up late, don't approach your meal plan thinking that you are suddenly going to wake up early every day and eat a healthy breakfast. Also, realize that things are going to change when you're at school...
Learn What the Start and End Dates of Your Plan Are
Knowing the start and end dates of your plan is also important. For example, if you are given $2000 for the entire semester, using that for 12 weeks or 16 weeks makes a big difference as to how you budget...
Find Out What the Dining Options Are on Your Campus
Each college offers its own unique dining options. Some schools offer one main dining hall, with no outside vendors (such as Jamba Juice or Taco Bell)...
Know What Your Options Are in Case You Need to Change After Arriving
At least be aware of your options for changing your plan mid-semester. Most schools won't give you your unused money back, but they will let you add more money (or meal credits) later in the semester...
For even more insights, both from parents and college students, see these threads on the College Confidential discussion forum. Bon appetit!
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