How to Eat Healthy on a College Meal Plan

Some find it challenging to eat healthy on a college meal plan — but it can be done. Follow these tips on making good choices when you dine on campus.

portrait of Kim-Ling Sun
by Kim-Ling Sun

Published May 26, 2022

Edited by Will Baker
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How to Eat Healthy on a College Meal Plan
Image Credit: skynesher / E+ / Getty Images


For many college students, living away from home can be a little daunting, especially if they aren't used to making meal decisions day in and day out.

This can lead to poor choices, like constantly turning to comfort food or cheap eats such as pizza and hamburgers. It's no wonder some students put on the "freshman 15" during their first year of college.

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What many students don't realize is that poor nutrition can also negatively impact academic performance. As such, it's important for students to learn how to make healthy choices on a college meal plan. Read on for tips and guidance.

What Is a College Meal Plan?

A college meal plan gives you access to dining services on campus through prepaid accounts. With this plan, you can get a certain number of meals per week at campus eateries and dining halls.

Many colleges require students who live on campus to purchase a plan since full meals can't be cooked in dorm rooms. A typical meal plan costs $3,000-$5,500 per academic year. Plan options cover 1-3 meals a day to meet most dining needs.

How to Eat Healthy on a Meal Plan: 4 Key Tips

One of the best ways to set yourself up for college success is to eat nutritious meals. Doing this will give you energy to power through your days and studies. By making careful choices, you can do this — even with a college meal plan.

1  Know Your Meal Plan Options

First, familiarize yourself with your meal plan options. Know what healthy foods are available and at which locations so you can make informed choices.

Go online to your university's Campus Life Page and look for the Dining tab. Most colleges list all dining locations and hours of operation. And they usually include online menus, which should help make meal planning a breeze.

2  Plan Your Dining Routine

The key to eating healthy on campus is to build a healthy meal based on the basic food groups — fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy.

Eating a balanced diet, drinking plenty of water, and including fiber in your meals helps keep your digestive system healthy, according to Cleveland Clinic.

Eating healthy on your college meal plan may also help you avoid gaining the "freshman 15."

3  Organize Your Daily Schedule

To eat healthy successfully, it's best to schedule your meals and plan your snacks throughout the day.

This will help you be efficient with your time as you make your way across campus. And it helps you steer away from calorie-heavy temptations.

Within this schedule, you should also allow some time for exercise beyond getting your steps in running from one class to another. Maintaining a consistent schedule each day will also promote mental and physical health.

4  Learn Tricks for Each Dining Station

There are several tricks to maintaining healthy eating habits around the various food stations in the cafeteria.

Though you may find it hard to believe, you can even make healthy choices at the dessert station! For a quick, refreshing dessert, go for low-calorie options like frozen yogurt.

With the soup or pizza station, lean heavily on options that are bursting with vegetables.

Finally, at the salad bar, load up on protein and fiber by topping off your greens with pine nuts and grilled chicken. You can also choose a low-calorie dressing such as a vinaigrette to keep your salad light.

College Meal Examples

Below are just a few examples of healthy meals you can make or purchase on a meal plan. You can use these ideas as a launchpad for choosing or creating healthy meals and meal combos on your meal plan in the future.

Breakfast

Breakfast No. 1: Greek yogurt with granola

Breakfast No. 2: Eggs with turkey sausage

Lunch

Lunch No. 1: Vegetable-loaded soup and salad or sandwich on whole grain bread

Lunch No. 2: Falafel wrap and fruit salad

Dinner

Dinner No. 1: Baked chicken and mixed green salad

Dinner No. 2: Grilled fish and steamed vegetables

Frequently Asked Questions About Meal Plans

Do unused meals carry over to the next week or semester?

Most universities now use the "swipe system" as part of the meal plan. That makes it easier for some schools to allow students' unused meals to carry over from week to week until all meals have been used.

Other schools like Texas A&M do not allow for carryover but convert unused meals into a form of campus cash.

Many schools do not allow for meals to roll over from one semester to another. As such, it's best you research your individual campus plan and its exclusions.

Does financial aid cover meal plans?

Financial aid can cover the various expenses of attending a university. Fortunately for college students, meal plans are calculated as part of the cost of attending college in addition to yearly tuition, school fees, and housing. This means you can allocate some of your financial aid funds to cover the cost of the meal plan you select.

Can I change my college meal plan at any time?

College meal plan policies vary from institution to institution. Most plans will allow you to make a change in "swipe" choices by a certain date without penalty.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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