Are College Meal Plans Worth It? Pros and Cons

by Jalen & Sarah Bromley
College Meal Plans

When you’re a college student, you have to juggle a social life, studying, preparing for your future career, and maybe even a job. This can make college meal plans attractive — but are they worth the money?

To help you decide, we’ll run through how college meal plans work, their pros and cons, and the costs you can expect.

How college meal plans work

College meal plans give college students access to meals on campus (or at select other food vendors). Students receive a set number of meals per week for a fixed price — usually paid per semester. 

Often, meal plans also include an allowance for food purchases made from other retailers, which may have names with some variation of “flex bucks” or “meal plan points.” They may even include a select number of guest meals, which you can use for visiting friends and family.

These meal plans are sometimes compulsory for freshmen students or those living in student housing, but they’re optional for most students. 

The cost of college meal plans

According to a report from Education Data, the average campus meal plan costs $450 a month. Of course, the cost of meal plans can vary depending on where you’re studying.  

Some states are significantly more expensive than others — the average monthly cost of groceries in Hawaii is $451 per month, compared to an average of $77 monthly in New Hampshire. But the state you study in isn’t the only factor. Some colleges have more comprehensive (and therefore expensive) plans, and some colleges subsidize their plans more than others.

Below is a breakdown of the costs of a meal plan at Stanford University. As you can see, it provides students with three options, which cost the same but distribute meal plan budgets differently.

This is a fairly typical structure, although some colleges offer different tiers for their plans. For example, Cornell University offers four main meal plans ranging between $4,764 a year and $6,942 a year. If you’re not attending some huge Ivy League college however, these costs could be somewhat reduced for you.

Benefits of college meal plans

If you have the choice between opting for a college meal plan or cooking your own food, you’ll need to compare the pros and cons of both options. Let’s start with the perks of meal plans.


If you view cooking as a chore and not a hobby, you’ll probably be relieved at the prospect of giving it a miss while you’re at college.

Less time spent buying groceries and cooking means more time you can dedicate to the things that matter to you at college — such as getting good grades, securing an internship, or simply enjoying yourself.

Being on a college meal plan also means you don’t need to worry about purchasing kitchen essentials and transporting them to and from your accommodation.

Social opportunity

When you’re on a college meal plan and so are most other students you encounter on campus, it gives you a unique opportunity to socialize. Whether spontaneously heading to lunch with your classmates or making dinner dates with your roommates every night, college meal plans make socializing easy.

Cost predictability 

Even though college meal plans can be pricey, you at least know in advance exactly how much your food will cost for the semester. This can make it easier to budget, which is especially useful for students moving away from home and buying their own food for the first time.

If you cook or eat out without a meal plan, you risk spending too much and running out of money.

Drawbacks of college meal plans

While college meal plans have their perks, they’re not for everyone. Here are the biggest drawbacks.


Perhaps the most significant disadvantage of a college meal plan is the price. As mentioned, the average campus meal plan costs $450 a month — yet sticking to home-cooked meals will only set you back $260 a month on average. Over a year, this difference adds up to substantial amounts — especially if you’re considering sticking to a meal plan for your entire time at college.

When you have a college meal plan, you also lose the chance to take advantage of tricks to save more money, such as couponing or buying items in bulk for lower prices and meal prepping.

Limited availability 

We’ve mentioned that some colleges force all students living on campus to enroll in a college meal plan, but it can also be the case that a university’s meal plans are oversubscribed and can’t cater to everyone. In other words: don’t get your hopes up!

Plus, if many students on campus are on a meal plan and all need to eat at the same places at the same time, it can lead to big queues or dining halls and shops running out of the best foods. This won’t necessarily be the case — many colleges take extra care to ensure they can always meet demand — but it’s worth considering. 

When you’re on a college meal plan, you simply don’t have the same control as you would when cooking for yourself.

More restrictive 

When you’re cooking your own food, if you can dream it, you can (probably) eat it. You get to control what you eat, no matter how unusual — whether that’s following a specific diet, eating chocolate cake for breakfast every day, or avoiding a food you’re allergic to.

Cooking for yourself also means you can eat at any time you want, which is more convenient for students following unconventional sleep or study schedules.

College meal plans involve some limitations. While some colleges include more dining halls or more diverse menus in their plans, you’ll always be limited by what’s on the menu and when the dining halls are open. 

Which is right for you?

No two students are the same — the decision comes down to your own preferences and needs.

If you have a particularly busy schedule, you want some peace of mind, or you’re not sure how to cook, a college meal plan may be a perfect fit for you.

However, if you have dietary restrictions — such as veganism or gluten-free — you might find the limitations of a meal plan frustrating. Also, if your priority is saving as much money as possible at college, it almost certainly makes more sense for you to stick to cooking for yourself.


Still have a few questions left unanswered? Hopefully, we have you covered with the information below.

Does FAFSA cover meal plans?

Yes. College meal plans count toward total university costs, just like tuition fees, so qualifying students will receive a discount or reduction after completing a FAFSA application.

Why do colleges force meal plans?

College meal plans are sometimes compulsory for students living in student accommodation due to the lack of space, making it more practical for students to go elsewhere to eat.

What if I don’t spend all the money on my college meal plan?

Different college meal plans have different rollover policies. For some plans, credits roll over from one semester to the next but not one academic year to the next. In other cases, unused credits don’t roll over and are nonrefundable — but you may be able to stock up or donate instead.

To meal plan or not to meal plan?

College meal plans are an attractive choice for many due to the peace of mind they offer and the time they save. However, they’re more expensive for most students and more restrictive for everyone, so weigh up the pros and cons of college meal plans carefully if enrollment is optional for your college.

For more advice on managing your finances as you navigate college, stay up to date with Frugal Student. We post regular tips explicitly tailored to college students, covering everything from budgeting to side hustles to meal prep.

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