Here’s How to Save on Food After the Mandatory College Meal Plan Ends

Trevor Montoya eats lunch at the University of South Florida.
Trevor Montoya eats lunch using an unlimited meal plan he had freshman year of college at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

During my freshman year, I caught the classic college kid sickness: mono (I know).

I’m alive and well today, but for about four weeks in the middle of the fall semester, my throat was so sore that I couldn’t even think about the unlimited pizza, salad bar, waffles, barbecue, taco bowls and made-to-order paninis and omelets that were served in the dining hall.

Instead, I had my roommate bring back to-go containers full of yogurt — pretty much the only thing I could manage to eat for an entire month.

And while sleeping 18 hours a day (not as pleasant as it sounds) and consequently having to withdraw from one of my classes seemed bad enough, that wasn’t even the worst part.

No, the worst part revealed itself today, almost four years later, as I sat here and calculated approximately how much money I wasted by not taking advantage of my unlimited meal plan for a whole month out of the semester.

The damage? About $500.

Ouch.

Mandatory Meal Plans

Lunch from Juniper Hall at the University of South Florida.

Montoya eats chicken masala and potato curry for lunch from Juniper Hall at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

The thing is, I didn’t really have a choice. My school required all first-year students to purchase a meal plan — and that’s pretty much the standard at universities across the U.S. nowadays.

Trevor Montoya is a sophomore at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida. Last year, while living on campus as a freshman, Montoya was required to purchase a meal plan. He opted for the unlimited plan and paid about $1,800 per 15-week semester.

(If you’re wondering why he chose the most expensive meal plan, consider that the cheapest meal plan he was allowed to purchase cost about $1,600 — and he would have only been able to eat about nine meals per week.)

Compared to some schools, however, USF’s pricing is on the lower end.

Lizzy Pelletier, an incoming freshman at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida, told me that she’ll be paying $2,600 per semester for her unlimited meal plan. She says she doesn’t feel added pressure to make her meal plan “worth it,” but will probably spend less money going out to eat knowing that she already has a prepaid meal waiting for her.

“My plan is definitely on the expensive side,” she notes, “but because its options are a step above the ordinary cafeteria choices, and the location is extremely convenient, I think I will be getting my money’s worth.”

Still, she’s excited for the day when she has her own kitchen to cook in — as is Montoya. For the upcoming school year, Montoya will be moving to an off-campus apartment where he’ll have a full kitchen. He plans to cook most of his meals at home and will split a lot of the expenses and meal prep with his roommate.

“My roommate does a lot of cooking,” Montoya laughed, “so I hope to have some teamwork there.”

And while he had spoken pretty positively of his dining hall experience up to this point, when I asked if he would be stopping by the on-campus dining hall between classes this year he hesitated before saying, “An individual meal there is, like, $10-12 — and that’s just kind of nuts for the quality of the food.”

That seems to be the general attitude surrounding meal plans, though: I wouldn’t pay for it if I had a choice, but since I don’t, I might as well eat.

An Unavoidable Cost

For students like Pelletier who have scholarships and other forms of tuition assistance, mandatory meal plans are an accepted part of the college experience. But for others, that extra several thousand for the not-so-great food that they could survive without will be tacked onto ever-growing student loans.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like mandatory meal plans are going anywhere anytime soon.

Universities across the U.S. have locked into long-term contracts with dining service providers. These agreements are built on the guarantee that students will continue to be forced to pay for meal plans if they wish to attend these schools.

So while it doesn’t seem like we’ll see an end to the mandatory meal plan anytime soon, there are strategies students can use to keep their food costs down for the rest of their college experience in an effort to recoup (or at least try to recoup) some of that money.

4 Ways to Cut Your College Food Costs

USF students eat lunch inside Marshall Student Hall while studying for final exams .

Students eat lunch inside the Marshall Student Center at USF in Tampa, Fla. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

After that first year, use these tips and tricks to keep your food costs as low as possible — and avoid additional college debt.

1. Learn How to Grocery Shop

Since you’ll be buying your own food, you’ll have to become a smart shopper.

First, check out these tips for saving money every time you grocery shop, and then follow these steps to slice your grocery bill in half. You might want to skip the one about raising your own animals for food, though — that off-campus housing isn’t really conducive to chicken farming.

Figure out how to store your favorite foods so they don’t end up in the trash, and learn which ones you can freeze and keep for later. That way, when there are sales on foods you know you’ll eat, you can stock up.  

Also, be sure you’re not making any of these embarrassing mistakes when you grocery shop. (You’re in college, I know you know how to make a list. Make a list!)

2. Learn How to Cook

Cooking at home will save you so much money. Just trust me on this one.

Before you can learn how to cook, though, you’ll need to make sure your kitchen is stocked with the right tools — and only the right tools. The one thing that isn’t on that list that will be a huge time and money saver, though? A slow cooker.

Find some recipes you enjoy that aren’t too complicated (or expensive). Go here to find a free downloadable cookbook that will teach you how to make delicious, healthy and inexpensive meals.

If you have a hectic class schedule or you know you’ll be too tired to cook after your intramural flag football game, do some meal prep on your day off to ensure you stay far away from pricy takeout. All you have to do is reheat and eat — and thank your Saturday self for taking such good care of your Tuesday self.

If you’re really pinched for time (or cooking space), here are some meals that can be made in a mugin the microwave — and all for less than $4.

3. Learn How to Budget

The thing is, you can be the smartest shopper and meal prepper in the world, but if you don’t stick to a budget, you’ll still wind up limping over the finish line each month as you eat that last package of oyster crackers you managed to dig out of your car seats.

The first step to creating your budget will be to track your expenses. Once you know where your money needs to go (and where it doesn’t) each month, you’ll have a better idea of what limits to set for yourself.

Then, create a budget based around your expense tracker findings — and stick to it! If you’re working your way through school with a job that leaves you with cash tips at the end of the day, don’t worry: you can still make a budget that works.

4. Learn Where the Discounts (and Free Food) Are

Tonight, your roommates want to go out for a birthday dinner — and you really want to go with them. And that’s OK, because you’ve done an excellent job of sticking to your budget and wait, what’s this? You have enough money left in the food category to treat yourself!

The key to treating yourself on a college budget is to take deals wherever you find them (that includes the free pizza that one club is giving away at the student union later today). And the key to finding the best deals and discounts? It’s that little rectangle with your embarrassing orientation day photo on it: your student ID.

Your student ID will get you discounts on everything from movie tickets to museums

— and a lot of restaurants in between, especially on or near campus. (Pro-tip: your .edu email address will score you a few more.) Not all of them will advertise that fact though, so don’t be afraid to ask if a restaurant offers a little discount for college students.

If you end up at a restaurant that doesn’t offer student discounts, don’t freak out: there are plenty of ways to save on going out to eat.

And next time a birthday rolls around, skip the restaurant and get everyone together for a potluck instead — everyone brings a small, shareable dish of their favorite food, and no one has to dip into their already stressed out wallets.

Grace Schweizer is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder.