Jon O'Donnell Updated on August 24, 2017

“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 that you were given this answer.

And 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 that you need to swipe a card (usually your student ID) in order 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 between about $5 to $15 a piece.

Whether you get a big or small meal plan, you’re going to want to make the most of what you’ve purchased. Here are five tricks all college students should use 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 just an occasional snacker—storing some 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 quick cookie or piece of fruit.

Some dorm-room essentials are cereal, power bars, Ramen noodles, and peanut butter.  All four options take a long time to go bad, and can be bought in bulk at Costco or BJ’s.

Buying in bulk will save you the hassle of traveling back and forth to the grocery store.

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 even 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 is important to scope out the scene before trying this on your own.  As a general role, 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 glorified Tupperware-run only to realize you have no sanitary place to stash your food.  If you plan on bringing perishable items back to your room, you’re going to want a fridge to store them in.

And, when you’re ready to eat what you’ve collected, you’re going to want a microwave to heat it all up. Dining hall food isn’t known for it’s high quality, and cold dining hall food is even worse.

Microwaves are also great for heating up instant oatmeal packets, 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. And, while you might get a little sick of pizza and soft pretzels by the end of it, you will ultimately be saving yourself a lot of time and money.

If all goes well, you will make some new friends, too, whom you can drag to the dining hall with you the next time you need to use a swipe.

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.  

Regardless, as you’ll become more aware throughout your college years, wasting a meal swipe is a 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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