What You Need To Know About College Meal Plans

college campus kitchen building with a blue sky in the background

If you are planning to live on-campus you might have considered a college meal plan. Meal plans can be both good and bad. For some students, if they didn’t have it they wouldn’t eat and for other students, it’s a step down from what they are used to.

At many colleges and universities, meal plans are required for freshmen living on campus. So they may be unavoidable for some students. Typically, college students with a meal plan use their prepaid accounts to eat at the cafeteria or dining hall with a certain number of swipes per week.

Have you heard of the dreaded “Freshman 15”?  This term is used to describe the weight that many freshmen gain during their first year of college. The weight gain is often attributed to eating a lot of all-you-can-eat dining hall food.

Unhealthy Options

Personally, I avoided the cafeteria and any on-campus restaurants at all costs. Throughout my bachelor’s degree and master’s degree, I ate on-campus food less than 10 times. Each time was because I was meeting up with friends or study groups.

The reason I avoided eating on-campus food is that most of it was unhealthy and I wanted to maintain a healthy diet. I asked a lot from my body, I went to school full-time, I worked full-time and I trained in martial arts several days a week. I had to take care of my body so I could accomplish everything.

For many students, avoiding the cafeteria may not be an option. Especially if you have already purchased a meal plan. So, let’s dive into the truths about college meal plans

Buffet Style Dining-Low Quality Cheap Foods

A meal plan is meant to be a fast dining solution for busy college students. They ensure that students have access to enough food that going grocery shopping or cooking becomes unnecessary. Dining halls are focused on “mass production”, therefore, they are typically buffet-style. As you know, buffet food is quantity over quality. This means there are a lot of greasy, fried foods, desserts, and ice cream machines. Most are all-you-can-eat. Consequently, if you eat all those unhealthy, greasy, sugary, high-fat, and high-calorie foods the “freshman 15 ” may become a reality.

Fortunately, today, college campuses are evolving and placing more focus on giving students more healthy options. All the unhealthy options remain but there should be additional, more healthful options available for students.

Look Into The Food

If you have any dietary restrictions, whether due to an allergy or by choice, your campus should be able to accommodate you. I recommend all students reach out to their college or university to ask questions regarding their dietary restrictions to ensure they are prepared to offer gluten-free, dairy-free, keto, paleo, vegetarian, vegan, or any other options. The dining hall staff or school nutritionist should be able to provide you with more information to help you prepare.

Colleges are starting to provide nutritional information about the food offered in their dining halls. Check the college’s dining website, many colleges post menus that have complete ingredient lists and allergy information. These menus may also include recommended serving sizes and calorie amounts.

Knowledge is power. I want you to know what you are putting into your body. Food is nourishment and there are endless benefits to eating a healthful diet. So be considerate of what you are eating whether it is on-campus or at home.

Cost Of Meal Plans

Costs vary based on the type of plan, the location of the college, and whether the college is private or public. The most expensive of the plans is an unlimited swipe plan. Unlimited means all you can eat, whenever you want, as long as the cafeteria is open. On the lower-end meal plans can cost $3,000 per year while on the high end, they can cost $9,000 a year. Meal plans, alongside tuition and housing, are considered part of the total cost of attendance. Therefore, these fees can be reduced or fully covered under financial aid if a student has completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Healthy Options

Some campuses have small markets for students to shop at. These markets are where you can find healthier options. Of course, they will have unhealthy options too, but they will have fresh food choices that the dining hall may not have.

Typically, these markets will have salads, hummus and light snacks, sandwiches, and wraps. These are all healthful options compared to the greasy or fried foods available in the dining hall. They are often better portion sizes and are still convenient for a busy college student that needs to run across campus to their next class.

Some colleges, most being larger and more prestigious universities, will have exchange programs where you can use your meal plan swipes at these markets. You may go through your swipes more quickly, but this is an investment in your health and well-being, so it is worth it. If you don’t have a meal plan, you can make purchases from these markets out of pocket.

assorted healthy vegetable trays on a table with white tablecloth

An Alternative To A College Meal Plan

College students, whether freshmen or seniors, also have the option of cooking for themselves. This option can be complicated and require some planning. If you’re living in a dorm room, there are going to be rules and restrictions on what you are allowed in your room. Some colleges don’t allow their students to have toasters, toaster ovens, electronic skillets, hot plates, or anything with an open flame. Typically, mini fridges are allowed but large fridges aren’t. Which makes cooking a meal difficult. You will have to plan your meals around these restrictions. Salads and other fresh fruit and vegetable dishes that don’t require actual cooking can be a great place to start.

Community Kitchen

Another option is a community kitchen. Many colleges have a community kitchen. Some colleges may have one large community kitchen that is used for events or societies and any student may request to use it. Others have several community kitchens that are close to the dorms specifically for the students to use.

Community kitchens are the perfect solution to the restrictions of cooking in a dorm room. They are often fully stocked with cooking appliances and equipment. Community kitchens are perfect for students who want to meal prep for their week to ensure that they have healthy food.

Meal Prep

I recommend using the community kitchen for meal prep. Meal prep will save you time and money. It gives you control over what goes in your meal and your body. It’s a great way for a student to stay on track with their diet restrictions and health goals. It can also make your busy life a little easier, taking the guesswork out of what you are eating for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. In addition, if you love to cook or bake the community kitchen is a great way to flex your culinary muscle.

meal prep for college students community kitchen

Nutrition Influences Student Academic Performance

Recent studies have shown there is a link between dietary intake and academic achievement in college students. This close relationship between health and education shows not eating a balanced diet can lead to deficiencies of important minerals such as iron, iodine, zinc, and vitamins too. These deficiencies can negatively impact understanding, perception, productivity, and mental concentration. In order to get all the nutrients you need you must eat a balanced diet of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and lean meats.

Strong Immune System

Good nutrition is also vital to building strong immunity and preventing illness. There’s always a bug going around campus, so a strong immune will help you stay healthy. When a body is healthy it can fight off infection, and you won’t feel run down nor will you miss classes.

Physical Activity

A well-balanced diet plays a huge role in physical fitness. Whether you are a busy college student who runs from class to class, an athlete, play recreational sports, enjoy just going to the gym, or train in martial arts, physical activity has many great health benefits. Eating a nutritional diet will supply you with enough vitamins and minerals to fuel physical activity.

Manage Stress Through Diet and Nutrition

Eating a balanced and healthful diet helps your body manage stress. As mentioned above, it increases energy, helps with focus and concentration, and increases your immune system. Stay away from excessive caffeine, alcohol, and drugs.

College students should keep healthy snacks in their backpacks. Nuts, seeds, trail mix, granola bars, and some energy bars contain good nutrition. Toss in some fresh fruit and veggies that travel well, like apples, bananas, oranges, mandarins, baby carrots, celery sticks, and cherry tomatoes. Always have water handy, staying hydrated is vital.

All students should learn How To Take Care Of Their Mental Health.

You Are What You Eat

Always remember, you are what you eat. You are in control of what you put in your mouth, even when you are a part of a college meal plan, so try and eat healthier options. I know French fries and ice cream are delicious but they shouldn’t be a part of every meal. Greasy and fried foods may taste good, but they can make you feel bloated and sluggish throughout your day, so it’s best to avoid them.

Ask Questions

Before committing to a meal plan, be sure to ask questions! Each college and university is different so it’s important to know what yours has to offer. Asking questions will provide clarity and will help you plan how you are going to eat a healthy diet while you are in school.

Ask about the accommodations available for students with dietary restrictions and where you can find nutritional information for the meals offered in the dining hall. Make sure you know how many dining halls, restaurants, and markets there are on campus. Ask about meal plan options that allow you to use swipes at other restaurants, outlets, or markets on campus instead of only eating in the dining hall. While most freshmen who live on campus must buy a college meal plan, there are schools that may allow students to opt-out.

Ask about the restrictions on appliances in the dorm rooms and if there are community kitchens that are available to students.