When I was a college freshman, my roommates and I were in the late night dining hall grabbing snacks one night just before finals. As I stood in line to swipe my college ID and pay for my chili fries and Diet Coke, I saw a guy nonchalantly lugging four huge jugs of processed cheese spread under both of his arms a few people ahead of me. Curious as to why anyone would need that much spreadable cheese, I listened as he told the cashier that he was trying to use up his meal plan money before we all went home for Christmas break.
I didn’t think about it much at the time because that was the norm at the end of every semester: you would see kids all over campus coming out of the dining halls with pies, cakes, and boxes of nacho chips as they emptied out their accounts.
Now that I’m a parent about to send my kid off to college, I’m more than certain that I do not need my kid to bring six economy jars of salsa home because we’ve paid too much for a college meal plan.
But, at the same time, the last thing I want is for our son to feel homesick because his dining plan doesn’t allow him to eat the foods that remind him of home. So, I’m going to need a little help navigating the ins and outs of college meal planning.
Thankfully, our Grown and Flown Parents Facebook group had some great suggestions for parents who are looking to maximize their budgets and provide their kids with a college meal plan option that won’t leave their kids hangry during finals and on weekends.
How to Choose a College Meal Plan
1). Sample the dining hall food when you are on the college tour.
College parent Renee Maiz says that her biggest advice to parents is to have a meal in the dining hall your kid will use most often when you are on your college tour. “The dining hall was a big part of how we chose University of North Dakota because they had lots of healthy options and variety. We ate at some dining halls and it was an easy, ‘NO WAY! Yuck!’ Eating at the dining hall is an important part of the college decision.”
2). Choose the smallest meal plan option to start.
Fellow Grown and Flown parent Allison Corrigan says, “We signed up our son for the biggest meal plan and quickly switched after the first semester. We figured since he was a boy who liked to eat a lot that he would really use the full meal plan, but in the end he liked sleeping in more and never ate breakfast at the dining hall.”
Take into consideration how often your teen will go out to dinner off campus with friends or eat meals in their room to save time before opting for the higher swipe meal plans. You can always add money to your kid’s account if you find that the small plan isn’t working.
3). Be realistic about your teen’s eating habits.
If your kid subsists on salads and granola bars, chances are, they aren’t going to suddenly start eating like a horse when they get to college. Sure, their tastes may change as they mature, but, if your kid isn’t a breakfast person, he probably won’t be at college, either. Take into account how your student actually eats when deciding on a meal plan, too. Is your teen a late night snacker? Does your teen sleep in until noon on the weekends? Is your teen a picky eater? Being realistic about how your teen will approach dining when she’s on her own will go a long way in helping you choose the right meal plan.
And, if you have a student with specific dietary needs, make sure to look at all of the options available across campus to make sure she will be able to grab food that meets her diet wherever she is on campus.
4). Look at your student’s schedule and make a plan.
Where your teen’s classes are located will make a big difference in how you choose a meal plan. If your teen will be spending long days in an area of campus that is a long walk to the dining hall, chances are, she won’t be making the long trek for a sit down meal three times a day.
Also, many dining halls have varying hours of operation and, in some cases, can close as early as 6 pm which makes it tricky for a student who has classes that don’t end until 9 pm to find dinner options. Carefully mapping out where your student will be spending most of his time will help narrow down meal planning choices.
Questions to consider when picking a college meal plan:
Where are the snack places on campus?
What are the hours of operation for the dining halls on weekdays and weekends?
Are all of the food service locations open during Exam Week?
5). Will your student have access to a car or a grocery store?
Grown and Flown Parent Ligia Scott says, “I wish we had known how much they would go out to eat with friends; despite the great food they serve at their schools.” Does your teen’s major require her to spend long hours off campus for an internship or nursing clinical? If so, that will dramatically reduce the number of times per week that your teen will need hit the dining hall for lunch or dinner.
If your teen has a car, he may be able to stock up on fresh fruit and items like oatmeal, granola and cereal that he can prepare easily with a microwave in his dorm room. Consider also sending your teen to school with a panini maker and a blender (if allowed) for quick sandwich and smoothie options.
6). Check the college or university’s website to see what other parents are saying.
If you have a question about a campus meal plan, chances are, another parent has had the same question. Many colleges have private Facebook groups where parents can ask questions to clarify dining selections and the specifics of swipes and dining bucks. And, of course, Grown and Flown Parents are always at the ready to help you, too!