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College Meal Plans - When does it make sense to buy the "Maximum" plan?

Aug2019Aug2019 201 replies15 threads Junior Member
S will be a freshman this fall at an LAC in the northeast. Several meal plan options and we are thinking we should go for the "complete" plan this first year. We know S will almost always eat three meals a day (and a fair amount at each sitting!).

Would appreciate feedback from other parents who've already been down this road.
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Replies to: College Meal Plans - When does it make sense to buy the "Maximum" plan?

  • TQfromtheUTQfromtheU 1540 replies17 threads Senior Member
    edited June 2019
    I have found that it almost never makes sense to buy the largest meal plan. Plus, you can usually increase but can not decrease the plans. About 15 meals a week works for students who will eat in the cafeteria nearest the dorm. That's breakfast and dinner everyday and one other meal the cafeteria. Does your S like pizza or any other group food?

    Look at what meal options are available nearest the class rooms. My roommate and I would eat breakfast and dinner in the cafeteria, and meet in the student union 5 days a week and get a cash lunch from those options. Cafeteria brunch on Sunday.

    My DS as a junior, now gets the lowest plan at his school (10 meals) and converts it all to "flex" that can be used at the cafeteria or brand-name restaurants on campus, mainly Panera. I provide bi-weekly cash in his bank account that he uses for groceries, delivery orders and eating out with his roommates. (They have a kitchen and he likes a variety of ethnic foods.)

    My entering freshman DD#1 will live next to a cafeteria and will get 15 meals, with lunch most likely at the student union.
    edited June 2019
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  • Erin's DadErin's Dad 33269 replies4000 threads Super Moderator
    Two kids through college by now. Neither took advantage of the full meal plan. If you don't have to select it then don't. Our upcoming college freshman has to use that plan but won't next year.
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  • woodlandsmomwoodlandsmom 409 replies10 threads Member
    We bought the second largest meal plan for our kids. They are big boys who work out a lot and need three meals a day. As for girls, my friends say they do not eat near as much. He will probably get Canes or Taco Bell on the weekend if he is like our kids which is why we just did the plan during the week and just had him use cash for the weekends.
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  • doschicosdoschicos 22008 replies232 threads Senior Member
    Agree with others - start with something smaller than the most expensive plan. You can always upgrade or add on if needed. Or you could supplement with a food allowance as it gets really tedious eating at the same dining hall all the time. Students will want to order in pizza or Chinese takeout, go off campus for a meal, etc. There are also many events on campus that will offer food.
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  • zoosermomzoosermom 25663 replies594 threads Senior Member
    My son is a rising senior. We always got him the biggest meal plan because he eats at least three meals a day and frequent snacks. He always needed the all-you-can-eat option because boy does he eat. The largest meal plan at his school comes with the largest number of points, which can be used for snacks, the food truck, and some local restaurants. It would be a lot more expensive to feed him by paying for what he actually eats.

    He will be in an apartment this year with a kitchen and no meal plan. I'm worried about going broke trying to feed him because I know what it costs to add him to our grocery budget at home during breaks.

    My daughters never had the largest meal plans and never needed that. All three of my kids (and my wallet) benefited from a lot of flexible points.
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  • TheodenTheoden 239 replies7 threads Junior Member
    edited June 2019
    Some schools allow you to change the first few weeks, some schools allow Freshman to change before second semester when they get the lay of the land.

    You can always supplement on their "dining dollars" card. So maybe start with the 15, supplement more if he needs it and then switch over to the 20 second semester.

    Also...the college you are talking about has a much nicer cafe in the student center (which cost more per swipe) than the regular dining hall. The students eventually develop a cadence mixing and matching depending on what's offered on a particular day.

    My college only had one meal plan, so it was an easy call. I always ate 3 meals at home, but, it turns out, by mid Freshman year, I almost never made to breakfast.
    edited June 2019
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  • SybyllaSybylla 4169 replies53 threads Senior Member
    edited June 2019
    it is important as above to understand if the dining room $$ are usable elsewhere on campus. We learnt to go with the lowest fixed plan with the higher end of flex dollars (which are easy to top up). Also, do some math if you haven't, we ball parked it as $10 per meal for my 2015 kid, not in a high COL uni. If that $10 is for dining room that isn't good, it is a waste. SO we never paid for more than 2 meal plan meals a day and gave them some $$ for breakfast items that they can have in their dorm fridge. My kid took very low plan for last semester and we just gave her cash when she ran out of money, again, $10 per meal goes a long way in even the fast food places, and the dining hall food wasn't great.

    >>I'm worried about going broke trying to feed him <<<

    This is surprising to me, becuase feeding a family member at home at is never going to cost what dorm food costs per meal. I really think that few of us break down that actual math.
    edited June 2019
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  • ucbalumnusucbalumnus 79748 replies714 threads Senior Member
    Depends a lot on the specifics of the college, like the price difference between the plans and how many meals the different plans have. Also, how convenient the dining hall is versus other ways that the student can buy food.
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  • TQfromtheUTQfromtheU 1540 replies17 threads Senior Member
    Another thing to check is the conversion rate to flex. We have found that the conversion rates is not a dollar-for dollar swap to flex. Meaning, if you paid $2600 for a 15-meal plan, and converted it all immediately, it would be worth less than $2,000 in flex items. Plus the flex didn't roll from year to year, only a funds on a separate access card would roll until graduation. (Meals don't roll to the next week either.)
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  • doschicosdoschicos 22008 replies232 threads Senior Member
    " I really think that few of us break down that actual math."

    I did it for my daughter her freshman year. A full meal plan was required. It equated to $187 per week 6 years ago. There was no way she was getting our money's worth. Granted, you aren't spending time cooking the food but even big, hungry guys would be challenged to consume that much per week in a home kitchen.
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  • Parentof2014gradParentof2014grad 1011 replies13 threads Senior Member
    Also consider dining hall hours, especially on weekends, and at smaller schools. Often only brunch and dinner are served on weekends, or only one dining hall across campus from your kids’ dorm is open on sat and sun, or there’s only one option to spend flex dollars at your kid’s tiny LAC and they only serve a couple of items. Meal plans are so overpriced, go with the minimum your kid needs, but also note cost differences between plans. Often the most expensive isn’t that much more than the cheapest if you aren’t sure what to do that first semester.
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  • Aug2019Aug2019 201 replies15 threads Junior Member
    Thanks @Theoden. You're right about the alternate dining option on campus, we think S will eat there frequently. He's pretty slender but manages to eat amazing amounts. We're a little nervous to set him free with a reloadable card for meals...Could bankrupt us.
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  • ucbalumnusucbalumnus 79748 replies714 threads Senior Member
    edited June 2019
    doschicos wrote:
    I did it for my daughter her freshman year. A full meal plan was required. It equated to $187 per week 6 years ago. There was no way she was getting our money's worth. Granted, you aren't spending time cooking the food but even big, hungry guys would be challenged to consume that much per week in a home kitchen.

    But wouldn't that depend on whether the student would prepare meals at home from food bought at a grocery store, or buy from restaurants in the absence of meal plan meals? A student who does the former would likely save money compared to the meal plan. A student who does the latter may or may not spend less than $26.71 per day ($187 per week). Of course, if the student eats relatively little, s/he may spend less than if s/he eats a lot.

    Note that $26.17 per day is about half of the per diem rate for meals for government employees traveling on business.
    edited June 2019
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  • mathmommathmom 32653 replies160 threads Senior Member
    Different colleges have different rules. My oldest went to a college which had terrible food and easy access to off campus food. Freshmen were required to buy at least a minimal plan and everyone I talked to recommended that. He never eats anything but cereal for breakfast and a sandwich for lunch and he's a super picky eater to boot.

    Younger son went to a college with great food and they required freshman to sign up for the most expensive plan. My son had no interest in spending time cooking in college (except for the occasional pie for a party) so he stuck with it. He eats three square meals a day.
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  • rickle1rickle1 2184 replies18 threads Senior Member
    We started with unlimited meal plan for S his freshmen yr. Wanted to see how it went, etc. He eats a ton (3 meals and late night snacks). Scaled back to the next level sophomore yr and had to add more $ both semesters as he ran out of swipes / meal tix about 30 days early. After adding on, cost was more than the unlimited so we're back to that without any of the hassles. Men living on campus (3 yr requirement) are a different eating animal all together.
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  • Aug2019Aug2019 201 replies15 threads Junior Member
    OP here. In this case, we don't envision S will be cooking for himself much. Maybe some ramen on a dark and stormy night. Will definitely be eating most meals on campus.
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  • Twoin18Twoin18 1802 replies18 threads Senior Member
    Also think about access to a fridge. My S took a mini-fridge for his dorm room and has milk/cereal/yoghurt/fruit for breakfast. He opted for a 14P plan (P means meals carry over from week to week) and didn't have any problems, even with swiping us in as guests when we visited. He would eat off campus occasionally on weekends, so that saved some meal swipes.
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  • doschicosdoschicos 22008 replies232 threads Senior Member
    @ucbalumnus Yes, as I stated, "Granted, you aren't spending time cooking the food".

    But many meals are cheap/quick - a bowl of cereal, yogurt, oatmeal, eggs for breakfast are quick and cheap, for example.

    My kids - daughter and son - frequently skipped breakfast to sleep in as long as possible. They also enjoyed getting off campus sometimes with friends to eat. Both got off the meal plans as soon as they could - one after a year, one after 2 years. However, both do enjoy cooking and don't see it as a hassle.
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  • Parentof2014gradParentof2014grad 1011 replies13 threads Senior Member
    For our kids, we told them we would pay for the meal plan and what it included, and grocery store food (cereal, milk, etc for meals not covered by the meal plan) but not for eating out at restaurants or fast food. This worked fine for us. Our girls preferred to cook for themselves and had to earn money for eating out by working.
    We shall see what son does with his options. Honestly we are having trouble choosing between a 5 day (m-f) or 7 day meal plan. It would be easier if it were a set number of meals rather than days. I’m not sure what flex options are open on weekends.
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