If your college student will be living on campus, one of the decisions she may need to make is choosing a meal plan. The policies and options for meal plans vary from school to school. They are often mandatory for resident students and may be offered as an option for commuters. They usually involve a prepaid account from which your student draws for meals. She will probably have a meal card (which may be her college ID card) which she will swipe each time she purchases a meal.
Investigate the options available at the college.
School meal plans often have varying levels. If the plan is a “per meal” plan, the student will be allowed a certain number of meals per week or per semester. This type of plan usually charges the student a set amount per breakfast, lunch or dinner and then allows an “all you can eat” policy. Other plans may provide the student a certain dollar amount per week or semester and the student is charged per item, so the student’s choices determine cost deducted from the plan per meal. Many meal plans also include a certain number of “points” or dollars that can be spent in campus snack bars or cafes, campus convenience store or even at certain off campus eateries.
Ask questions about policies for meal plans.
If your student is allowed a set number of dollars or meals per week or semester, is there any carryover? Can unused meals be carried to the next week or semester? Many plans do not allow carryover, while others may allow students to carry unused meals or dollars to the next week or the next semester. Money is seldom, if ever, refunded at the end of the year for unused meals.
Many institutions allow students to change meal plans during the semester if the student determines that the current plan is not working. Although some schools may not allow your student to reduce a plan during the semester, most will allow him to add money and upgrade his plan.
Some plans do allow students to spend unused dollars in a campus convenience store at the end of the semester or year. Students are sometimes seen leaving campus with cases of soda or snacks or even hamburgers or steaks. Some schools even allow students to donate unused dollars at the end of the year to local food pantries.
Consider eating habits and schedule.
Students should carefully consider their eating habits and schedule. Does your student always eat breakfast or never eat anything before noon? Will the student be doing an internship that will keep him off campus several days a week? Will your student be coming home every weekend or be eating meals on campus seven days a week? Is your student a big snacker who will be visiting the snack bar often? Will he have guests on campus often? Does the meal plan allow for guests? Honestly answering lifestyle questions will help your student determine an appropriate plan.
Consider any special circumstances and request information.
Most schools require a meal plan for resident students. Some schools offer an optional plan for commuter students. If your student is commuting, will he be on campus at meal time often? If he is living in an apartment on his own, does he like to cook? Might he appreciate having a “dining out” option for a few meals each week? How does the cost of the meal plan compare to restaurant dining? If your student is a big eater, and the meal plan is “all you can eat”, it may be a very good option.
If your student is a resident student, but is doing an internship that will have her off campus at lunch time, she should investigate whether there is a “take out” option. Some services will prepare a box lunch or meal-to-go.
If your student has any dietary restrictions, be sure to investigate options. Vegetarian meals, vegan meals, and even gluten free meals are becoming much more common. Other restrictions may be accommodated if requested.
Be realistic and be flexible.
With some realistic thinking about lifestyle and careful consideration of the options available, your student should be able to find a meal plan that works for him. Don’t hesitate to ask questions if anything is not clear. This is a new experience for most students.
Remember that most plans are flexible and can be changed – certainly at the end of a semester if not before. It may take a semester, or even a year, for your student to determine her eating patterns at college, but she is not likely to go hungry.