Students need to eat. As part of most undergraduate programs that require them to live on campus, students will also have to get their meals through the campus dining hall. While this may seem like a convenience, it can come at a cost.

Data from the U.S. Department of Education and the Bureau of Labor Statistics reveal a shocking difference in what cash-strapped students pay for food compared to the rest of us. The price of a college meal plan has grown 47 percent in the last decade, compared with 26 percent in overall food cost inflation. In fact, one of the more prestigious colleges boasts an average per-meal price of almost $12.

This development is a true departure from what I remember in college. Twenty years ago, I had a meal plan, and it felt expensive. A meal consisted of a modest spread: two types of meat, two sides, and a salad bar, with soft-serve on the weekends. It cost about $4.

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I certainly would have been impressed with today’s campus fare, which ranges in tastes and dietary requirements to provide fresher options for vegan, gluten-free, and even low-carb eaters. But having one low-cost option was ideal.

So what’s a student in today’s college environment to do about the rising cost of campus dining?

With graduates averaging $27,000 in student loan debt (some of that from food costs), how much can be saved if meal decisions are made differently?

How Do College Meal Plans Work?

Since no two colleges are the same, it’s impossible to give a one-size-fits-all explanation of how they price food. It is safe to say, however, that most institutions have meal plans that work like this:

  1. Tiered pricing allows students to have anywhere from one or two meals a day to unlimited dining during cafeteria hours.
  2. You can buy flexible-spending currency, often named something cute like Bronco Bucks, as part of a meal plan or as an addition to give the student dining options outside the cafeteria. Students usually spend these “dollars” at campus bookstores that serve snacks, the on-campus Starbucks, or franchised fast-food spots with campus partnerships.
  3. Guests can usually dine by either using meals on the student plan or using the flexible-spending currency.

How to Pay for a College Meal Plan

As previously mentioned, colleges usually require meal plans for anyone living on campus. And most private colleges and universities also ask freshmen and some sophomores to live on campus. So cafeteria plans are an almost guaranteed cost for underclassmen, who are already trying to figure out how to pay for tuition and books.

Fortunately, this also means that you can use college funds obtained through federal student loan programs, work-study, and scholarships either directly for meal plans or to offset other costs. (Though if you need to take out a lot of loans, you might consider refinancing them with a company like SoFi or ELFI Education Loan Finance.)

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If you work on campus for your school's food-service company, you may also qualify for free meals.

Does your college meal plan show every intent of bleeding you dry? Check out our guide to make the campus dining experience more affordable. #CentSai #mealplan #collegemealplan #frugaltips #collegemealplanning

Does your college meal plan show every intent of bleeding you dry? Check out our guide to make the campus dining experience more affordable. #CentSai #mealplan #collegemealplan #frugaltips #collegemealplanning

Your College Meal Plan: Make the Most of Campus Dining. Does your college meal plan show every intent of bleeding you dry? Check out our guide to make the campus dining experience more affordable. #mealplan #collegemealplan

Make Your Campus Dining Experience Pay Off

Since it’s been so long since I used a college meal plan, it was an eye-opening experience when my family chose a college for our oldest child last year. We hadn’t given meal plans the prior consideration that we should have. Here are the questions that we discovered all students should ask before picking a college and a meal plan:

Do I participate in any course of study, sport, or other activity that would make it difficult to get all I can from a meal plan?

Nursing students, for example, may work long clinical shifts. This often means that they only have access to the cafeteria during the early morning or after evening meals. Students’ course requirements or participation in sports might also make it difficult to get their money’s worth from an unlimited college meal plan.

Does the school cafeteria allow carryout?

For students with tightly spaced classes and labs, it can be impossible to dine during hot-meal service. Does the campus cafeteria offer to-go service as an accommodation?

For the salad, cold food, and other “always open” service bars, is there daily variety?

Having access to a Subway-style sandwich bar saved my daughter from missing meals on the three days a week when she had back-to-back labs. However, she soon grew tired of eating the same things every day.

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The more dynamic foods are on the hot-lunch menu, which can have limited service at most schools. As a result, my daughter experienced meal fatigue and no longer looked forward to her food options.

Can guests eat with me?

Allowing your little brother on campus to visit is an experience made better with a shared dining. It's essential to find out whether your meal plan accommodates visitors.

What happens to unused meals or flexible dollars?

Most plans expire at the end of the term or school year. If you have meal credits or flexible dollars left, will the school reimburse you somehow?

Most colleges won’t issue cash back for leftover credit, so find out what options are available.

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You don’t want to end up stuck with $300 in meal credits that you have to use during the last week of school.

Can I change my plan midyear?

You’re usually locked into a college meal plan after the term starts. However, some schools allow you to switch between the fall and spring semesters. If you find that the plan you chose doesn’t fit your needs, you’ll need to know when and how to make adjustments.

Is the food any good?

Don’t be fooled by what the school serves you on campus-visit days. Schools look to attract students with every method possible, including appealing to their stomachs. Even if the meals served are the same as the ones students eat, they're often “special” meals or those served on holidays.

Can the school work with special dietary needs?

Almost every food service company now offers gluten-free and vegan options, but certain dietary needs like allergies are still issues that not all of these companies can accommodate. If your food can’t touch milk products, for example, the school might be able to prepare you specially made meals. Otherwise, a doctor’s note might release you from having to buy a plan.

Finding the Right College Meal Plan for You

One of the worst decisions a student can make is to purchase an overpriced meal plan, then not use it.

Another mistake is to assume you can make up for an insufficient plan with your own cooking. Many frugality blogs brag about students who saved thousands of dollars a year using carefully timed meal plans and a slow cooker.

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But remember that schools often discourage campus residents from bringing anything but a microwave to the dorms. Plus, most incoming freshmen are incredibly stressed by the overscheduling of their first year. So allowing for eight hours of simmering just isn’t in the time budget.

That’s why I recommend this single rule for students: The best college meal plan for you is the one that you’ll use, that works in your unique situation, and that won’t have much equity left in it when classes let out in the spring.