Here’s How to Make the Most of Your College Meal Plan

There are so many decisions to make every semester of college-- what classes to take, where to live, and what meal plan to choose. It can definitely feel daunting to navigate meal swipes, dollars, and all of the different options and prices your school offers, but it really comes down to what plan best fits your budget and lifestyle. Here are my best tips for navigating your college’s meal plan!

  1. 1. Be realistic when choosing your plan.

    Riends Pizza College Party Food

    If you know that getting Starbucks or Panera every week is part of your routine, make sure you factor that into your decision. Rather than going for the largest meal plan and then having tons of leftover swipes and money at the end of the year, try to budget how often you’ll be eating out. However, if you know you’re going to be super busy and only have time to grab food at the dining hall instead of going off campus, maybe pick a more expensive plan that you’ll really make the most out of.

  2. 2. Make the most of a swipe!

    Using a dining hall swipe is kind of like an all-you-can-eat buffet-- take advantage of it! If your school offers to-go options, try grabbing two meals at once for the price of one swipe. If not, you can even eat in the dining hall, stay and get some homework done, and then get another meal without using a swipe. It’s kind of a fun game to see how much food you can grab without getting in trouble for it (you’re paying for it so it’s fine!).

  3. 3. Spice up your meals.

    Food in mason jars

    Even if your school has the best food in the country (I <3 you UMass Dining), having some of your favorite seasonings and add-ons can make dining hall food so much better. I have everything bagel seasoning and hot sauce for eggs, my favorite granola for yogurt and oatmeal, and oat milk for my coffee. You would definitely be surprised how much a few of your favorite flavors can make your food taste so much better! Combining different foods at your dining hall to make a salad or bowl is also a fun way to switch up your meals.

  4. 4. Make money-smart choices.

    Everybody is guilty of spending extra money on food-- sometimes you really just need a milkshake and fries. However, there are ways to split up your spending between grocery shopping, eating out, and your meal plan. Try getting fresh fruits and veggies at your dining hall instead of buying them-- they’re expensive and go bad faster than you would think. See if you can find a dining-hall alternative to your favorite comfort foods and save some of the money that you would be spending on DoorDash or at Whole Foods. Planning your eating habits smartly will save you money and will make eating out feel even more special.

  5. 5. Buy your favorite snacks in bulk.

    It’s always important to have food in your dorm for when you need a quick snack. Buying granola bars or any of your go-to snacks in bulk can save money, and also make sure that you’re always stocked with food. I try to make a list and have a budget any time I’m grocery shopping to make sure that I get everything I need but can still try that fun new thing from Trader Joe’s.

  6. 6. Be patient and know that it’s an adjustment!

    If this is your first semester at college with a meal plan, know that your eating habits will change, and that’s totally normal! I went from cooking my own meals and eating mostly fresh foods to eating mac and cheese and pizza almost every week. College is a whole new time of your life, and sometimes you just need your favorite comfort foods rather than trying to have 3 perfectly balanced meals. There are little things I’ve found like adding veggies into my eggs every morning and trying to get at least 2 major sources of protein a day to help me get more nutrients. As long as you feel good and are fueling your body, be kind to yourself and your new eating habits.

Even if the meal plan you first choose doesn’t work for you, it will only help you make the right choice next semester. Although all of these choices can feel a little overwhelming, at the end of the day, it’s all about what will make you feel the most happy and healthy!