What Is a College Meal Plan? Should You Get One?

Should you get a meal plan? Learn more about college meal plans and the different options students have when dining on campus.

portrait of Doug Wintemute
by Doug Wintemute

Published on May 26, 2022

Edited by Will Baker
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What Is a College Meal Plan? Should You Get One?
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College meal plans can add convenience to a learner's dining experience and help schools ensure students have access to food.

Unfortunately, these plans can also add a significant amount of money to the cost of education. According to The Hechinger Report, the average cost of a standard college meal plan in the U.S. is $4,500 per academic year, or roughly $18.75 per day.

Here, we take an in-depth look at meal plans in college, including what benefits they offer and what students should know about them.

What Is a College Meal Plan?

A college meal plan is a prepaid account students can use to buy meals on campus. These plans provide students with the convenience of not having to cook at home, buy groceries, or allot a certain amount of money for food each week.

The type of college food available depends on the school and which meal plan option you choose.

The size and scope of meal plans in college also vary by school. Dining options can be quite limited at smaller schools, whereas larger schools may boast numerous dining halls, restaurants, and independent vendors.

In terms of size, dining plan options are usually measured by the number of meals per day or per week, offering around 7-21 meals each week.

Do You Need a Meal Plan in College?

At most schools, first-year residential students need to have a college meal plan in place. This ensures they have a sufficient amount of food during their studies and minimizes the amount of food and cooking in dormitories.

Online and commuter students are usually exempt from meal plan requirements.

After their first year, students often get to choose if they want to buy a college meal plan or not. Learners can buy college food using cash, do their own shopping and cooking, or visit restaurants whenever they want.

Schools may make college meal plans mandatory beyond the first year, especially for students that continue to live on campus.

The 4 Types of College Meal Plans

While college meal plan options vary depending on the school, they usually give students a selection. Meal plans not only give students access to sufficient amounts of food but also strive to satisfy student nutrition requirements.

The following college meal plans are some of the most common options for students.

1  Flexible Meal Plan

Flexible meal plans in colleges tend to serve students who live off campus and commute to class. These meal plan options are generally smaller than traditional plans and feature diverse dining locations.

Flex plans may also allow learners to add more money or meal swipes as needed.

2  Light Meal Plan

Light meal plans in college provide students with 1-2 meals each day. These work well for students who have smaller appetites or who only plan to eat a couple of times on campus per day.

Light meal plans are usually the cheapest options available at most colleges.

3  Standard Meal Plan

Standard college meal plans offer students a safe dining choice. These plans provide degree-seekers with about 2-3 meals each day, covering breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Standard plans can be used at most dining locations on campus.

4  Heavy Meal Plan

The largest option available, heavy meal plans offer students three or more meals a day — up to an unlimited amount of food in some cases.

While students with big appetites may prefer or require a heavy college meal plan, understand that these plans can be quite costly and even unhealthy for some. Students should consider the drawbacks, like the "freshman 15," when choosing a college meal plan.

How to Get Out of a Mandatory College Meal Plan

While most first-year students must buy a college meal plan, schools may allow learners to opt out in certain situations.

Commuters and off-campus students, for example, typically do not need to pay for these plans. For these learners, eating at campus facilities may be challenging or completely unnecessary.

Students with dietary restrictions may also opt out of college meal plans in some cases. Schools may not offer appropriate dining plan options for vegan or vegetarian learners or for those with food allergies.

When students get tired of dining hall or cafeteria food, they may be able to use their meal plan credits at campus restaurants or grocery stores.

Frequently Asked Questions About College Meal Plans

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

At most colleges, unused meals or swipes do not carry over between weeks and/or semesters. Students are encouraged to use all pre-purchased meals during the period they're valid.

Some college meal plans may include credits or flex dollars that move between weeks and/or semesters. These credits or flex dollars are almost always nonrefundable and redeemable only at specific locations.

Does financial aid cover college meal plans? true

Yes, financial aid typically covers a portion of college meal plans. College food is considered part of the total cost of attendance and built into the allowances provided by federal aid sources (it's the "board" in "room and board").

Since the amount of aid awarded depends on the applicant and the cost of education, the amount provided to cover meal plans also varies.

Can friends or family use my college meal plan, too? true

The rules regarding sharing meal plans with family and friends depend on the school. Colleges and universities may discourage students from swiping their meal plan cards for others, whereas some schools may allow it.

Colleges may also incorporate meal-sharing credits that are designed to be used by family and friends.

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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