Managing Without a Meal Plan: Economical and Satisfying Food for College
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!
Are you here because...
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Multiple compartments for varied items.
Excellent for holding a variety of items.
Sandwich boxes are ideal for limiting waste, providing options for pre-making, and keeping your food fresh.
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.
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.