To Buy or Not to Buy – Meal Plans
Some of us will miss those family dinners. Others will find some relief. Either way, we all want to know that our kids are eating…and hopefully eating right. College, or at least when I went, didn’t have a whole lot of good options, particularly if you lived on campus; as most freshmen do. That is not the case anymore. This is not to say that those dreaded freshmen fifteen may not happen; there may still be late night deliveries and food runs. There is a vast array of food choices on campus; some choices wiser than others, but a great deal right at the students’ fingertips. Whether they hit the salad bar or stick to burgers, pizzas, and fries (oh my), I can’t say. Experience says that their newfound independence tends to sway them in directions you may not have selected for them, but have faith and take solace in knowing they definitely won’t go hungry.
Burgers and Pizza and Fries… Oh, my…
If my opinion were all that counted, I would probably say don’t bother with a meal plan and just give your student the option to buy and prepare their own food. It is a great way to teach them to budget and even cook a little. There are many ways around this; whether it be by sending them with a loaded (you choose the amount and for how long – weekly, monthly, semester) debit card or perhaps provide them with specific amounts of Knights cash on their UCF card or if you have chosen to open a Fairwinds account; you can put money on that card as well. All of these options will allow your student to eat on campus, and some off campus. They can use the debit cards at stores as well. There are shuttles to Publix and Target weekly and many students have cars. Even the dorms that don’t have kitchens in their suites have community kitchens and all allow microwaves and refrigerators in their rooms. Besides, this does not preclude them from eating in the dining room whenever they choose; although their meal will cost about $1.00 more than those that have a meal plan.
The decision about which meal plan to choose should entail a conversation between you and your student. For meeting new students, especially those just starting, meal plans are a good option; however, if you are willing to pay a little more, based on other parent and student input combined with my own opinion, I would choose a declining balance card. Today’s college communities offer so many eating alternatives for students that better options other than locking into a meal plan are worth considering.
I understand that we don’t want to put any more on our freshman’s plate (no pun intended) by asking them to shop and prepare meals for themselves, but isn’t this college experience also about learning to adjust to the real world that includes budgeting and feeding ourselves? It isn’t as though we are sending them out into the wilderness without any tools or resources. There are an unbelievable amount of dining options available on campus and many grocery stores very nearby. The Union alone has Boar’s Head, Cafe Bustelo, Chilis, Knightstop, Qdoba, and Smoothie King and will be adding Which Which, Steak-n-Shake, Panda Express and Huey Magoos this summer. Around campus, there are also many places to eat including Dominos Pizza, Dunkin Donuts, Java City, Starbucks, Jimmy Johns and more.
For students without kitchens, students can easily make it work. One mom even described in detail how she armed her daughter with a slightly larger refrigerator/freezer (just under 5 cu), microwave, bookcase that served as a pantry, microwavable containers that can double as dishes, a Keurig and paper plates (ok, at least they are recyclable) and her daughter has done just fine. Basically, most parents agreed with me and said don’t bother with the meal plan.
But….should you worry, and I get that; worrying is actually one of my hobbies; there are a few meal plans to choose from. Perhaps, if your son/daughter is starting with a summer session, it would be the perfect time to try one out. There are 6-week plans available. This is actually a great thing because it will give your student a chance to see how much they think they will need in the fall – the various plans allow different amounts of meals and access to different places around campus. (The biggest concern had to do with Chick-Fil-A. Apparently, there are only some plans (i.e.: All Access) that gives them a meal at Chick-Fil-A, but I have been warned that it is only a sandwich.)
For more information on the meal plan options check out UCF’s page that best describes them.
As for students who choose to purchase food and prepare their own meals, the good news is that Publix now delivers. Students can use SHIPT which is a membership service that shops for your student and delivers it for free (on orders over $39) right to them (beware they deliver alcohol too) from Costco. The prices may vary slightly from what is in the stores, but the convenience may be worth paying for if getting to the grocery store is too difficult for your student. There is also that weekly shuttle to get them to the stores.
If your daughter is planning to join a sorority, carefully consider that some have meal plans there too. You could end up with two.
All in all, you know your student better than anyone and together you can make a decision as to what will work best for him/her. Take note that if she/he chooses a meal plan and wants to downgrade, she/he cannot. Meal plans can only be upgraded; so start small and add on if need be. Remember too that meal plans, other than summer, are for the entire year – not just a semester.
Lastly, there is a whole new type of meal service that is becoming popular with students who can’t cook, don’t want to cook, don’t want to buy groceries and are looking for an easier, and healthier meal plan. Known as the meal kit industry, the premise is that they deliver pre-portioned, packaged meals delivered weekly right to your student’s door. Make sure you check out our blog on A College Student’s Guide to Meal Kits. Our interns tested out Blue Apron, Plated, Chef’d (Spoon University) and Hello Fresh.
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