Choosing a Dorm Meal Plan

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How to keep your college kid well fed, without spending too much

Unless your child is attending a commuter college, chances are he’ll be living in the dorms and eating in the dining hall. Most colleges offer a variety of meal plans ranging from 10 to 19 meals a week – three meals a day Monday through Friday, plus brunch and dinner on Saturdays and Sundays. There’s usually a price break when you buy more meals, but the truth is, it’s a rare kid who actually eats 19 meals a week and the difference in missed meals and lunches-grabbed-on-the-run can amount to several hundred dollars per semester. The question is, how much is too much and how do you decide on a dorm meal plan?

First, don’t fret about your child going hungry if you opt for a smaller meal plan. Most universities have discount debit cards for exactly this purpose. They even give them cute names, such as “Triton Bucks” or “Pacific Cash.” You load them with extra money for the dining hall, and there’s usually a cash break – $25 worth of food for $20, for example, although it depends on the school. But here’s a quiz to help you figure out the proper size meal plan:

  1. Is your child a… a) heavy eater, b) average or c) light eater?
  2. Does your child eat breakfast… a) every day, b) several days a week or c) rarely?
  3. Does your child eat lunch… a) every day, b) several days a week or c) rarely?
  4. Will your child be coming home… a) only during school breaks, b) several times a semester or c) every weekend?

OK, now tally your score. Mostly A’s? Opt for the 19-meal plan. B’s? Choose a mid-range plan, such as the 14-meals per week option. C’s? Pick the fewest meals possible.

One final tip: no matter which plan you choose, it’s a good idea to rent a mini-fridge for his dorm room. It doesn’t cost much and splitting the cost with a roommate makes it even cheaper. Stock it with milk, juice, fruit, cheese, yogurt and other perishable snacks and breakfast items, and your child can supplement his meal plan in healthful, tasty, and cost-conscious style.

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