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.