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

DS had unlimited as freshman, mandatory. However, the dining options were varied and he could just pop in for a drink or get a take out box. Expensive, but I think it was good to not have to worry about meal plans while getting acclimated to a very large campus and intensive classes. Second year he dropped down a level. Once he moved off he used the commuter plan, significantly less.

What I have found w/ youngest is there isn’t much price difference between the lower plans, 9,12, 14. School also had unlimited, but I knew she would never use it; dining options weren’t as good at her school. So we went w/ the 14 her freshman year. However, she had so many “swipes” left at the end of the year, she is now on the lowest just because it annoyed me so much! Not much cheaper than the 14, but at least they will be used.

The OP did ask when it would make sense to have the unlimited plans if given a choice. My kids didn’t need it but I have two friends with kids with ‘food insecurity’ and they would freak out if they thought food was limited. Both families went with the unlimited optins because they wanted their kids to be able to get food whenever they needed it/wanted it.

Of course, all of the varied responses basically say that the answer to the OP’s question is “it depends on the pricing of the various meal plan options, the alternative food options available, and the student’s eating habits”.

So if the price difference between the maximum and smaller meal plans is small, the alternative food options are poor, and the student is a hungry athlete, that may suggest that the maximum meal plan is a good option. But if the smaller or no meal plan costs substantially less, the student likes cooking, lives where there is a kitchen and near a convenient grocery store, and eats relatively little, then a smaller or no meal plan may be a better choice.

I can tell you one scenario where it makes sense - when the school makes all freshmen get an unlimited plan! DS’s school made the decision that all freshman must get the unlimited plan this year.

The cost differentials between schools are huge.

The meal plan at Wellesley College costs $7,442 per year and Northeastern charges $6,990.

Other schools are much lower. I’m not sure that many people would get their monies worth at almost $36 per day.

My son was required to have a full meal plan as a freshman, but he found that the cafeteria hours didn’t work with his music practices. As a sophomore this year, he’s getting a plan with more flex points for cafes, etc.

And just because we got the plan with the 10 meals (swiped in dining hall), that didn’t mean they couldn’t eat more than that.

They were free to eat as much as they wanted, but eating every meal at the dining hall didn’t work with their schedule sometimes. If they ran out of flex dollars to buy food at other campus places, we would either add more or they could use a credit card we gave them.

It’s also important to check where one can use a swipe. On my son’s campus, the convenience store and the food truck accept swipes, and some local businesses accept points - which come with the meal plan, so for us it’s worth it.

My son doesn’t eat breakfast, but he often has lunch, late lunch and then dinner before having a late-night snack at the convenience store or the food truck.

checking the hours of a cafeteria can come into play as well.
The cafeteria closest to my kid’s dorm has what I consider to be very inconvenient hours. 7-9am for breakfast, 10:30-2 for lunch, and 5-8:30 for dinner. Those hours are very unrealistic for many people, since class times goes anywhere from 8am to 8pm. There’s another cafeteria in another dorm that is open late hours until 1:30am, but it’s a good 15-20 minute uphill hike. If you’re doing a max plan but the cafeteria open hours are when you have classes, well, it doesn’t do much good.

Right, I really don’t understand this business of unlimited, if the opening hours are totally restricted.

OP update. Thank you to all those who responded - a lot of good advice from many different perspectives. S went with complete plan for freshman fall. He’ll definitely be eating all his meals on campus and probably won’t do much cooking for himself beyond some ramen and easy mac. Meal plan comes with $ to be used at an additional site on campus (other than main dining hall) so he has options - and he can change plans at the start of each semester as need be.

Based on his recent appetite, I would guess that the cost of the meal plan will be offset whennour grocery bill here at home plummets in late August…

I would also take into consideration your student’s comfort in eating out. My family rarely went out to eat and i wasn’t comfortable searching for off campus food options. My kids have a lot of experience eating out and are accustomed to a wide variety of foods. My son will be in school in Boston so I expect he will want to go out to eat regularly so we will sign him up for a lower number of swipes.

Thanks @ultimom. In S’s case, college is in a pretty rural area so dining out won’t happen too often but we are definitely assuming he’ll order takeout with friends or will go out every once in awhile.

When I was in school, the “complete” meal plan was lunch and dinner Mon-Sat and brunch on Sunday, no breakfasts served, so 13 meals a week. I had no money for anything not provided in my meal plan and was hungry (and painfully thin) most of my undergrad years. If we had had to pay for our son’s meals at school, we would have opted for whatever the maximum was just due to my early food insecurity. Anything outside the plan would have been on him. (He ended up at a service academy where the meal plan was all-you-can-eat-in-twenty-minutes 3xday.)

Every college is different but I think how you analyze it should be similar. Here is the analysis for the University of Florida

First, let’s look at the big eater who is going to eat 3 meals a day every single day. For purposes of this analysis, I have excluded flex bucks as my assumption is that these get spent during the semester for coffee/icecreams, etc.

There are 16 weeks in a semester so there are 336 possible meals if you assume 7 days a week and never miss a single meal. This student could either choose to buy the meal plan or to pay each time they visit the cafeteria. The price of the cafeteria is $6.99 breakfast, $8.49 lunch and $8.99 dinner which averages to $8.16 per meal.

The Open access meal plan is $2,300 less $450 in flex bucks or $1,850 for the cafeteria. Buying all those meals would cost $2,741, which means that the savings are $891. Once a student starts to miss meals, this saving is eaten into. A student that misses 1 meal a week would realize $130 less in savings( 16 * $8.16 average). Given this, the breakeven is about 14 meals per week and below 14 meals per week, it cost more to have a meal plan. A student that only eats an average of 10 meals per week will lose about $500 on the meal plan.

For a smaller eater, I assume that that breakfast will be skipped every day and that the 10 meals per week plan will be selected. This meal plan cost $1,765 per semester less $550 in flex bucks or $1,125. Given the same 16 weeks, there are 160 possible meals in total. A student that eats every single meal will realize a savings of $183. A student that misses one meal per week would realize $140 less in savings (16 * $8.74 average). The break-even is between 8 and 9 meals a week. A student that only eats an average of 5 meals per week will lose about $500 on the meal plan.

The above analysis assumes that the meals lost are simply not eaten but the reality is that the student often prefers Chipotle, a slice of pizza, kababs or other “cheap eats”. If you factor in the additional spending the meal plan looks even worse from an economic standpoint.

In summary, a meal plan converts real money into a food club membership. Go often enough and you can make it work but for the majority of students, the meal plan is simply not a good deal. My recommendation is to take the cost of the big eater plan ($2,300) and break it down into 16 weeks of payments or $143.75 per week and deposit it into the students account every Thursday and let the student figure out how to most efficiently and effectively spend those dollars every week. My guess is that they will figure out places to eat that they really like and find a place that has $6 taco Tuesdays. They will also splurge and go out with friends and spend $30 on Sushi but those times will need to be infrequent as the budget just does not allow too many splurges.

If your student blows all of their money and calls you on Monday begging for more money? Agree that you will send them as much as they need but that you will reduce the following weeks by 125% said amount.

The numbers here are for UF but the approach is universal. Of course, some schools require that a student in a dorm purchase a meal plan or there might be a situation in a small rural college that the only place to eat is in the cafeteria. But if given the option, put pencil to paper to figure out the breakeven and weekly spend and compare this to the individual needs of your student.

Best advice we got for student orientation leader that is good for future years. Look at schedule for classes before paying for meal plan. If you have to eat within limited hours for each meal and your classes are during times that make it hard, then pick very lowest plan possible or one with flexible points. At D2 school you could change to larger plan after the fact or second semester, but can’t drop down to smaller one.

We did the unlimited plan for D18 last year. I didn’t want her to worry about when or what she could get. She’s shy and will go without eating if it feels like an issue.

S18 will start unlimited. He eats a lot and will use this semester to see what plan works best for spring.

For them, it just seems easier to keep it simple while they figure out everything else. If there was a bigger cost difference, I might look a little closer.

Check the Meal Plan page of your student’s school. My son’s university allows students to adjust meal plans 3 weeks into the semester. That allows for some on campus experience which should help them make a more informed decision.

It amazes me what some schools charge for meal plans. My son attends a school that is consistently ranked in the Top 10 for food and the maximum meal plan costs $5,500.

At my D’s school there were 3 kinds of dining plans. We went with the middle one. Not too much not too little…