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Meal Plans 101: How to Make the Most Out of a College Meal Plan

Updated: Nov 16, 2020

Kaneesha Vaz

PHHS ‘19, University of Pittsburgh ‘23

Freshman year is often made simple for those coming in. In fact, most colleges require all freshmen to live on-campus and sign up for a meal plan. When it comes to making decisions, choosing the right meal plan can save students hundreds of dollars whereas choosing the wrong meal plan can cost students hundreds of dollars in unused meal swipes and dining dollars. In fact, incoming freshman should ask themselves these questions:

  • How often do you skip meals?

  • Do you prefer snacks over meals?

  • Do you have access to a kitchen?

  • Can you easily go grocery shopping?

  • Do you have to “use or lose” your swipes or dollars?

Keeping this in mind, it is important to determine what meal plan is most cost effective for you. If you often skip breakfast or prefer snacks over meals, it is in your favor to buy a lighter meal plan. Most colleges require freshmen to purchase a meal plan to support standard diets. Yet, if there is an opportunity for you to use dorm kitchens or other appliances, it is again in your favor to buy a lighter meal plan. Regardless of whether you are living on or off campus, it is important to determine if there is easy and even frequent access to grocery stores in case you do decide to take advantage of dorm kitchens or other appliances. For example, the University of Pittsburgh provides students with an on-campus grocery store where students are able to use their meal plan to purchase groceries. In the end, it is important to determine whether or not your meal swipes “roll over” to the next semester to help decide if a lighter or heavier meal plan is of more use to you especially with the average cost being around $4,500 per year.

While most colleges and universities require students who live on-campus to purchase a meal plan, students with dietary restrictions can be accommodated by the school. In fact, those students can determine if the school’s dining and meal services offer kosher dining, halal dining, or even accommodate for food allergies and intolerance. Currently, colleges and universities try to take precautionary measures when it comes to cross-contamination. If you have a significant food allergy, when deciding on a meal plan, you should explore your school’s Allergic Living directory (or something of the equivalent) to find information regarding accommodations. That being said there is usually a variety of options for students to choose from varying from cost to amount of meal swipes and dining dollars so it can pay to pick the right plan for both you and your parents.

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