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5 Ways to Maximize Your College Meal Plan

“It’s not Mom’s home cooking, but…”

If you’ve ever inquired about the food on a college campus, it’s a pretty good bet you heard this answer at least once.

The truth is, this six-word phrase pretty much sums up the college dining experience. Some meals are great, some are average, and some aren’t quite identifiable. Depending on what school you go to, and what your taste buds desire, you may love or despise your college dining experience.

Regardless, college meals don’t come free so you’re going to want to maximize every penny you’ve spent on your dining plan.

We’ll start with the basics about how meal plans work, and then we’ll give you the inside scoop on how you can work with them.

How meal plans work

Most meal plans operate through a swipe system, meaning you need to swipe (or scan) a card, usually your student ID,  to access the dining hall. Each card swipe is equivalent to one meal. Under this system, students pay in advance for a fixed number of meals each semester.

The most expensive meal plans offer an unlimited number of swipes, while the least might allow only a few swipes per week or month. Depending on what school you go to, and what meal plan you select, the "cost" of a swipe can range from $5 to $15 each.

Whether you get a big or small meal plan, you’ll want to maximize what you can get for your money. Here are five tricks all college students should consider to maximize their meal plan.

1.  Snacks, snacks, and more snacks

It doesn’t matter if you identify as an all-the-time snacker or an occasional snacker—storing extra food in your dorm room is always a good idea. Hunger can strike at unexpected times, especially when adjusting to a new routine and class schedule, and no one wants to waste an entire swipe on a cookie or piece of fruit.

Some dorm room essentials are cereal, power bars, ramen noodles, and peanut butter. All four options are shelf-stable, and can be a small snack or the basis for making a larger in-room meal. Plus, they can be bought in bulk. Buying in bulk is cheaper in the long run and saves you the hassle of traveling back and forth to the grocery store, especially if you don't have a car on campus and/or public transit isn't great in your area.

If you have a dorm fridge, perishable items, such as milk, bread, cheese, or yogurt are best bought in small quantities so you have time to eat them before they expire.

2.  The Tupperware trick

Tupperware is the ultimate perishable-food hack. Tupperware, or other reusable food containers, enable you to transport food from the dining hall to your dorm room, reducing the need for frequent grocery store trips.

Fill a thermos with milk for your morning cereal, make your own salad, or box up some chicken and rice for an on-the-go dinner to eat before your night class.

Some cafeterias have strict policies about leaving the dining hall with food, so it's important to scope out the scene before trying this.  As a general rule, keep your Tupperware usage on the down-low, and don’t abuse the privilege.

3.  Your new best friends: the microwave and mini-fridge

There’s nothing worse than returning from a successful Tupperware run only to realize you have no place to stash your food. If you plan on bringing perishable items back to your room, you need a fridge to store them in. And a microwave to heat it up when you want to eat. Dining hall food isn’t known for its high quality, and cold dining hall food is even worse.

Microwaves are also great for heating up things like instant oatmeal, ramen noodles, and the occasional cup of of hot chocolate.

If you’re thinking about getting a microwave and/or mini fridge, you might want to ask your roommate to split the cost. These appliances aren’t huge, but they are large enough to share between two (or three or four)  if needed. Besides, sharing the items will give you more space in your dorm room for other things you might decide to bring.

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4.  Club meetings and activities fairs

Especially during the first few weeks of school, keep your eye out for flyers and events involving free food. This shouldn’t be too difficult, as clubs and student organizations will be hosting social events early on to bring in new members.

These clubs are made up of other college students, who are well aware that nothing draws young, broke people together quite like free cuisine. You might get a little sick of pizza and soft pretzels by the end of it, you'll ultimately save yourself a lot of money.

If all goes well, you'll make some new friends, too. 

See also: The Introverts Guide to Dorm Living 

5.  Keep track of your meal swipes

Accumulating unused swipes is an all-too-common mistake made by college students. Maybe you don’t have time to eat, or maybe you’ve become too good at utilizing the other four tricks.  

Another possibility: Some plans limit how many swipes you can use each week/month. For example, say you got a 14-meals-per-week plan on the assumption you'll eat breakfast in your room and grab lunch and dinner in the cafeteria. On some plans, if you only use 10 meals the first week, four of them would "expire."  In that case, you paid for mediocre food you didn't even get to eat. 

However it may happen, as you’ll realize during your college years, wasting a meal swipe is a virtual crime.

Because most plans are prepaid, not using a swipe won’t save you any money.  In fact, it will only hurt your budget (and your stomach) so get your meals in when you can.

If the first meal plan you choose is too large or too small, most colleges offer a period at the beginning of each semester for students to upgrade or reduce their plans. If you miss this opportunity, you can always choose a new meal plan for the next semester. 

Bon apetit!

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