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Managing Without a Meal Plan: Economical and Satisfying Food for College

Updated on July 27, 2013

Managing Dorm Life Without a Meal Plan

If you've survived your freshman year of college, you may be thinking about skipping your meal plan in the coming year. While there may be a lot of variety, campus dining hall options can get boring. I remember the days well. My daughter concluded her year with the comment that, "Hard as it is to believe, I'm tired of pizza and hamburgers."

Her coming year will involve living in a dorm that includes suites furnished with kitchens. While the kitchens aren't the typical home options with full stove and range, they are a step up from living entirely on dining out. However, many students still living in traditional residence halls find that they are equally fed up with how they are fed. What are the options? Can you eat healthy, be satisfied and save money? Those campus meal plans are costly. Uggh. You don't have to tell me. I think my daughter's meal plan last year was comparable to about a 6-month grocery budget for our family of 10.

Yes, you can save a lot of money. The question is, do you have the will to be creative and consistent? Are you going to resort to the same prepared foods at different venues? You won't save much if you turn around and frequent the fast food joints down the street. However, skipping the meal plan doesn't mean that you can't eat campus or fast food from time to time. Let's explore.

Image credit: Nic McPhee at Flickr.com

Meal Plan Plans?

Are you here because you need ideas for meals without the big bill? Parents may be concerned about how well a child will eat without the plan. Students may need ideas for meal prep. In either case, thanks for reading. I've spent time working in residential life, and I now have a child who attends school several hundred miles away. My experiences, and hers, are why I'm writing this lens. Welcome!

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Is this a nightmare to you?

This may seem yummy at first, but after a month of meals in the same spot with similar options, you may become frustrated. However, keep in mind that your own meal prep can become equally frustrating and boring. It's all about balance!

Image credit: Joy Ashish at Flickr

Managing without Eating Campus Food: Breakfast

Let's be honest. Do you really eat breakfast in the dining hall? If you are lucky, you may be able to grab a bagel and coffee on the go, but many people miss breakfast. Full meal plans for night owls aren't great parental investments. Take your normal starting point and turn it into purposeful nutrition.

If you aren't allowed cooking devices other than microwaves, think microwave options that are easy. Oatmeal is a cinch if you are a fan. Dress it up with some dried blueberries, walnuts, or chocolate chips. My approach is to just cover my quick cook oats with water, microwave on high for a minute, and voila.

Yogurt is easy and pretty healthy. Add some granola or meusli for good measure. Consider fruit cups or fruit. Most dorms allow refrigerators. Your typical cold breakfasts at home work in a dorm.

Need something more substantial? Microwave scrambled eggs are easy. Put them on high for 30 seconds at a time in a microwave safe bowl, and stir between cooking intervals. Add some pre-cooked bacon, a slice of cheese and an English muffin for a simple sandwich.

Pancakes and waffles may be a bit trickier, but if you have a little freezer space, you can pick up the microwaveable varieties at the grocery store.

My best tip? Eat a light breakfast, and plan to take a snack or two for between classes. If you need a hearty breakfast on a daily basis, you may be better off with that morning meal at the dining commons.

Image Credit: Marshall Astor, Flickr

Grab It Bowls: Managing without a MealPlan by using Microwave-Safe Bowls

It's easy to use whatever you have on hand to cook with in your microwave. However, you really don't want to have to keep replacing ruined dinnerware. A set of these bowls is ideal for ensuring that you can handle your bowl without burning yourself. The Grab Its have been around a long time, and I find them great for oatmeal, soups and especially for microwave scrambled eggs.

CorningWare 15-Ounce Grab It with Plastic Cover
CorningWare 15-Ounce Grab It with Plastic Cover

The plastic covers of Grab It Bowls make it easy to store leftovers. If you make more than you can finish at a sitting, you can cover and refrigerate. Excellent, as well, for preparing something in advance for a quick heat-up when you are back from class.

 

Microwave your way to skipping that College Meal Plan

The nice thing for students is that a microwave is almost always acceptable for dorm living. You can do so much with your microwave that you can at least reduce your meal plan requirements if you don't completely forego the plan. From soups to TV dinners, there are many quick cooking options. You'll also find rice and pasta kits that provide microwave instructions. Vegetables can be heated in your microwave, ground beef can be cooked (carefully) and bacon can be done with the right tools.

Sunbeam SGS90701B 0.7-Cubic Feet Microwave Oven, Black
Sunbeam SGS90701B 0.7-Cubic Feet Microwave Oven, Black

Pick a model that isn't oversized for your living space. You probably don't want the oversized kitchen version that your parents use, but something small and space-efficient.

 

Renting from the College...Value?

Some schools, like my daughter's, offer appliance rentals. The fridge-microwave combo may be convenient, but the price for one year's rental is probably equivalent to the cost of purchasing both outright. She will get several years of use from her college appliances, whereas those who rent will essentially pay four times the value if they continue to rent each year.

Convenience may make it worthwhile to consider a rental, not having to transport the devices home at the end of the year.

The right College Fridge for the Dorm?

I suggest that you opt for a bigger model if you are going to skip the mealplan. If you are going with a partial mealplan, it's still better to have more fridge space than less. That 1.7 cubic-foot refrigerator for college may be cheap, but its space is tight. Make sure of your dorm regulations. Opt for at least a 2.5-cubic foot dorm fridge. Some schools permit 3.1 cubic feet...much better, especially if you are sharing with a roommate.

meal plan alternatives
meal plan alternatives

Lunch on the Me Plan instead of the Meal Plan?

Lunch is probably the easiest meal to manage. Think about your typical school lunches as a child. Do you need to be all that creative? Not really, but you can. Some options:

  • Simple Sandwiches - think peanut butter and jelly, tuna, lunch meat, cheese or whatever it is you love in a sandwich. Fridge space allows you to store your ingredients, and invest in a sandwich box or two for on-the-go eating.
  • Wraps - great variation, and you can buy ingredients like lettuce and pre-cooked chicken strips for something substantial. My favorite quick wrap is a tortilla with peanut butter.
  • Salad - some of the storage containers for lunches make it easy to put a healthy salad together in advance for on-the-go eating.
  • Fruits and nuts - snack-like foods can fill the bill on busy days
  • Burritos - a can of refried beans can go a long way, and a couple of burritos can be quick and nutritious.
  • Soup - invest in a thermos or soup container for cold weather lunches

Image Credit: Melissa, Flickr

Lunch on the Go

Featured here are several options for taking a nutritious lunch or dinner on the go. If you have a busy slate of classes from mid-morning to afternoon, you may just want to stop at a scenic spot or in the student union for a quick bite to eat. Making your own meal is much cheaper than spending a bundle on fast food on campus, and you can trim costs from your meal plan by making your own lunches.

Stay-Fit Lunch 2 Go Container, EZ Freeze
Stay-Fit Lunch 2 Go Container, EZ Freeze

Multiple compartments for varied items.

 
Bentgo All-in-One Stackable Lunch/Bento Box, Green
Bentgo All-in-One Stackable Lunch/Bento Box, Green

Excellent for holding a variety of items.

 
Sistema Klip It Collection Sandwich Box Food Storage Container, 15.2 Ounce/1.9 Cup each, Set of 3
Sistema Klip It Collection Sandwich Box Food Storage Container, 15.2 Ounce/1.9 Cup each, Set of 3

Sandwich boxes are ideal for limiting waste, providing options for pre-making, and keeping your food fresh.

 
meal plan alternatives for college
meal plan alternatives for college

Dinners without the DC?

Skipping dinner at the dining commons? You don't need to waste a bunch of money on fast food, although an occasional meal out may not be a huge budget buster. As my daughter and I discuss her options, I know that she is a talented cook and will be able to create everything from skillet meals to omelettes without a recipe book. If that's not you, don't fret. There are lots of short cuts that don't require excessive cooking. You can make do with your microwave for many hot meals. Some options:

  • Pre-cooked meats like chicken strips for reheating - make fajitas, stir fry, and skillet-style dishes by combining these with the right veggies, lightly heated in the micro
  • Rice and pasta - look for quick-cook options that can be done in the micro
  • Ham dices - affordable options in small quantities for omelets, scrambled egg dishes, etc.
  • Fresh vegetables - raw veggies for some meals, steamed for others - you can find microwave steamers

Some foods are a little more difficult to prepare in a microwave. I don't have a lot of success with chicken, for example, because it can overcook easily. You may have a few fumbles, but try some options out at home so that you know what to expect.

Image Credit: Marcus Noones, Flickr

Quick and affordable...eating in a pinch?

While the nutritional value of Ramen, Cup Soups and microwavable meals may be questionable, it's nice to have those options when you are too tired to think of something creative. It's also fine to budget for on-campus eating.

My daughter speaks of various stands and carts on campus that sell bagels, burritos, and other quick foods. For a couple of dollars, she can pick up a simple lunch. If she does that every day, it's about $10 for the week. Budget it in!

Not sure if you should ditch the meal plan?

You may want to simply lessen the number of dining hall meals that you pay for. Check it out on a semester by semester basis. You can always increase your plan next semester if you don't like the way things are going.

Share your thoughts on student meal plans and alternatives...

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    • profile image

      KAHOULI 4 years ago

      Even though my college days are behind me I still find myself eating like I did back then....It is very nostalgic and it saves me a lot of cash!

    • profile image

      Echo Phoenix 4 years ago

      Fab lens topic! and great ideas... although I do not have college aged children any longer, I appreciate the suggestions you have presented :)

    • profile image

      SuperBlogger983 4 years ago

      Make easy money just follow go this link and start racking up $5000 a month

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    • craftblogger lm profile image

      craftblogger lm 4 years ago

      Great ideas for saving money on college meals. There are so many healthier choices and they don't cost a fortune

    • craftblogger lm profile image

      craftblogger lm 4 years ago

      Great ideas for saving money on college meals. There are so many healthier choices and they don't cost a fortune

    • EzLoanLookUp LM profile image

      EzLoanLookUp LM 4 years ago

      Even though my college days are behind me I still find myself eating like I did back then....It is very nostalgic and it saves me a lot of cash!

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Terrific lens. Congratulations on getting LotD!

    • profile image

      natureadventure 4 years ago

      Great lens, containing great tips, congratulation on LoTD!!!

    • CrazyHomemaker profile image

      CrazyHomemaker 4 years ago

      Good ideas for the college bound! Just in time for a new semester. Congrats on LOTD.

    • profile image

      fifinn 4 years ago

      I remember when I was in college, must be very frugality to buy food.

      Thanks for the tips.

      And congratulation for LOTD.

    • SheGetsCreative profile image

      Angela F 4 years ago from Seattle, WA

      good tips for college budgeting - food can be so expensive!

    • sagebrushmama profile image
      Author

      sagebrushmama 4 years ago

      @Dressage Husband: My sister lived in a suite situation one year, and they traded cooking responsibilities. Each of the six residents cooked dinner for everyone on one night, and they ate out on Sundays. It saved both time and money for everyone.

    • E Andrew Brandon profile image

      Ean Brandon 4 years ago from United States

      I just graduated and reading your lens made me remember all the... raman

    • Mary Stephenson profile image

      Mary Stephenson 4 years ago from California

      Congratulations on LOTD. Great budget cutting ideas for those going to college or anyone starting out on their own.

    • Bercton1 profile image

      Bercton1 4 years ago

      Great tips and congratulations on LOTD!

    • Pat Goltz profile image

      Pat Goltz 4 years ago

      I grew up on tuna fish. As I mentioned, I ate it nearly every day in college, even on my pizzas. And I still eat it nearly every day. Go figure. Ramen is loaded with monosodium glutamate, which is a really dangerous substance, and which I can no longer tolerate; it did terrible things to my health. If you just eat the noodles and throw away the flavoring, it's safe. But unfortunately, it's the flavoring that makes it worth eating! When I was in college, none of us had refrigerators, and microwaves for home use didn't exist. I'd open a can of tuna so I could stay in front of my typewriter while eating. No little computers in those days, either. It was either a huge standing rack cabinet, or nothing. The idea of communicating with a computer network hadn't even really started yet. So no internet, no FidoNet, etc. I must be getting old! LOL

    • RawBill1 profile image

      Bill 4 years ago from Gold Coast, Australia

      Congrats on LOTD. The whole idea of living on a campus and studying away from home is really foreign to me, so a lot this stuff was new to me. I think that universities and all schools really need to look at the types of food that they are serving their students. Here in Australia, the school tuck shop is mostly garbage at my kids schools and I think that is fairly common right throughout the western world unfortunately.

    • HappyTom LM profile image

      Tom Christen 4 years ago from Switzerland/Ecuador

      Nice tips! Congrats to LOTD!

    • PaigSr profile image

      PaigSr 4 years ago from State of Confussion

      Congrats on the LOTD. A good attractor for me was I was hungry when I found it. I didn't have a meal plan but I also had points. That way for missed meals I would be able to hit the snack bar.

    • sagebrushmama profile image
      Author

      sagebrushmama 4 years ago

      @ratetea: Excellent points...I loved the social aspect of dinner at the dining halls as well. My daughter's dorm is situated in small communities of six students per suite, a great way to enhance social interaction. However, students who want to make friends and develop new relationships may not want to entirely forego the mealplan options.

    • profile image

      StrongMay 4 years ago

      Here at Hebrew University there are no "meal plans", but the cafeterias have a great variety - you can eat lunch there every day for a month and never have the same combo twice! The food is also exactly what students would have found in their mother's kitchen, so it is healty and tasty, and they are generous with the amount of food. It's also cheaper to eat at the cafeteria than it is to buy the food yourself at the grocery store! And lucky for us in the dorms, we get refrigerators and stovetops for free with our rooms, and the campus is covered with microwaves for a fast, free lunch heat-up.

    • profile image

      ArtbyMAR 4 years ago

      Great timing for your lens, we are trying to decide if my son should have a meal plan or not since he has a kitchen where he is living.

    • hazeltos profile image

      Susan Hazelton 4 years ago from Summerfield, Florida

      This is a great lens. You have mentioned many good ideas. I'm sharing with a friend whose daughter is going to college in the fall.

    • jemacb profile image

      jemacb 4 years ago

      Nice lens. My kids are now going to University so this is very relevant

    • diegocomercio profile image

      diegocomercio 4 years ago

      hI sagebrush_mama, great lens. Very good suggestions. The picture is funny too.

    • profile image

      ratetea 4 years ago

      I think there can be hidden costs and losses to going off the meal plan. In retrospect, when I looked back on my college years, the dining hall was the central focal point of social interaction. Without eating in the dining hall, I wouldn't have made some of the friendships that I did, and I wouldn't have had many of the conversations I did--which led to all sorts of growth and insight. I also remember hours of conversations about academic subjects over the lunch table, and I remember language lunch tables that helped me practice conversing in a foreign language.

      I think you offer some useful tips here that can help people who for whatever reason really need to go off a meal plan, but I also want to caution students: you're not just paying for the food, you're paying for community.

      Different colleges are different, but at many colleges, it can be hard to find these sorts of communities as easily. When weighing costs and benefits, don't just think about the food--think about the overall experience.

    • eight dee profile image

      eight dee 4 years ago

      good LOTD ...these meal plan is new to me. Would be helpful when my kids goes to college

    • profile image

      Torrs13 4 years ago

      I remember being on the meal plan for my first two years of college. I always thought the price was ridiculously high. I was excited when I got to move to the on-campus apartments when I was a junior so that I had a kitchen to cook in. Made life a lot easier! (and cheaper)

    • delia-delia profile image

      Delia 4 years ago

      Congratulations on LOTD! Great suggestions...I'm glad my girls are done with college. ;-)

    • profile image

      phamdiep 4 years ago

      Maybe i'll buy it a try! Very useful

    • profile image

      angelatvs 4 years ago

      Really great tips! Well deserved lotd.

    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 4 years ago from Arkansas USA

      What great ideas - lots for college families to consider. Your Lens of the Day gets an A+ from me. Congratulations!

    • Faye Rutledge profile image

      Faye Rutledge 4 years ago from Concord VA

      These are great tips! Congratulations on LotD!

    • profile image

      jan93 4 years ago

      very inspiring tips ,thank you

    • profile image

      getmoreinfo 4 years ago

      Nice suggestions for having a healthy meal alternative while in college.

    • Raymond Eagar profile image

      Raymond Eagar 4 years ago

      congrats on lens of the day

    • Dressage Husband profile image

      Stephen J Parkin 4 years ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada

      At my university we had communal housing with large kitchens. I think these should be encouraged, because we would get up early and go to the wholesale markets for the produce around 6am. They had stalls that sold to restaurants etc. We would buy on the cheap and share real meat, fish, vegetables etc. There were six students in my group and we would each take turns in cooking and washing up. In this way we bought food for less and always had enough mouths to eat it up.

      At the weekends we would do a full roast on the Saturdays and eat it cold on Sunday, all it required was a roster and it was not too onerous on any of us. I like your ideas as you can cook a lot in a microwave fish is easy and delicious done this way! Congratulations on LOTD.

    • Gypzeerose profile image

      Rose Jones 4 years ago

      My son found a vegetarian restaurant "Cafe Gratitude" that offered gratitude bowls: black beans, rice and a delicious tahini sauce for a donation of 1-8 dollars. He lived off of those, along with the water there.

    • aka-rms profile image

      Robin S 4 years ago from USA

      Congratulations on Lens of the Day!

    • marktplaatsshop profile image

      marktplaatsshop 4 years ago

      Congratulations on LotD, thanks for sharing

    • amosvee profile image

      amosvee 4 years ago

      Great ideas. The only downfall is that washing up is not so easy in a dorm bathroom, but this could save a great deal of money.

    • MartieG profile image

      MartieG aka 'survivoryea' 4 years ago from Jersey Shore

      Good advice-my college days would have been much better with a microwave! :>)

    • Susan Zutautas profile image

      Susan Zutautas 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Congrats on yout LOTD! I think that going the alternative route would be a much healthier choice.

    • profile image

      KAHOULI 4 years ago

      Its Really Awesome And helpful Tips, I read your full article and very happy to seeing your fans commenting on your blog. Really impressed me.

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      anonymous 4 years ago

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      k4shmir 4 years ago

      interesting. thansk for sharing

    • Rhonda Lytle profile image

      Rhonda Lytle 4 years ago from Deep in the heart of Dixie

      Good advice not only for saving money but also for avoiding the dreaded "freshman 15." The cafeteria style food typically served will pack on the pounds in a second.

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      Gale 4 years ago from Texas

      This is great! Even for people on the meal-plan. I used to get hungry late at night after the cafeteria closed, and I didn't have a car to go grab something elsewhere. I remember furtively searching the snack machine items wondering which ones had the most nutritional value.

      My roommate had one of those things meant to heat water in. Since used to cook in it like a hot plate, since those weren't allowed. She cooked mainly soups in there but she did some non soup items too.

      Now a days I keep seeing meals you can cook in a mug in a microwave (even things like cake). Wish I had known about those back then.

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      Fay Favored 4 years ago from USA

      Sounds like a "plan" :) Congratulations on LotD.

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      anthonylucas 4 years ago

      Congratulations for being the best lens today. :)

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      Erin Mellor 4 years ago from Europe

      Meal plans can be a good idea if you know your kid will not cook, and will be eating junk food anyway, but learning a few favorite recipes and fast fixes before they leave not only saves money but can help steer them away from the "freshman 15", and feeling run down.