10 Colleges With the Most Cutting-Edge Meal Plans

Parents, think just how much food your teenage son eats. Regardless of what he is interested in studying, psychology, archaeology, history, public administration – doesn’t matter, chances are that he eats a lot. Now picture trying to feed 10,000 teenagers every day. This is exactly the job many large colleges are tasked with five or seven days a week. Historically, schools have taken a somewhat stale, blanket approach to feeding their masses of students, using prepaid, block meal plans that go “poof” at the end of the semester, with money still in them or not. But a few schools are making changes to this formula and putting themselves on the front lines of meal plan innovation. Here are the 10 whose efforts we most applaud.

  1. Middlebury College:

    This liberal arts school in Vermont has one of the most unique meal systems in the country. Here there is no need to choose between 14 or 19 meals a week, or 150 or 200 per semester. There is only one plan: all meals all the time. Students (and their visiting friends and family) may come and go at will at the campus dining halls, where there are no checkers and no registers for swiping IDs. The meals are included in the tuition and fees. It seems to be a popular part of the experience at Middlebury, but then again, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The school had the nation’s most expensive tuition in 2011-2012.

  2. Columbia University:

    Students at Columbia have the option of one practical and inclusive dining innovation at the school: kosher and halal meal plans. Columbia has one of the largest Jewish student populations in the country, but it also has a healthy segment of Muslim students who require halal food, which involves special restrictions on both how the food is prepared and what type of food is allowed. Both groups can use their special meal plans on campus at the John Jay Dining Hall. Columbia students can also opt to take part in the more comprehensive kosher meal plan at Barnard College, which allows students to eat three meals a day, seven days a week in Barnard’s main dining hall, Hewitt Hall.

  3. Naropa University:

    Naropa is a tiny private school in Boulder, Colo. As the campus is small, the school offers its own meal plan for Naropa Cafe purchases, but it also promotes the use of a third-party service known as the Flatiron Meal Plan. Students can use this program at 90-plus merchants in the Boulder area, from high-end grocery stores like Whole Foods to farmers’ markets. Meals carry over from semester to semester and year to year and the plans can be tailored to pretty much any appetite. Many students at UC Boulder also take advantage of this off-campus service, but the school doesn’t officially encourage it like Naropa does.

  4. Oklahoma State University:

    Speaking of meals that carry over, trying to find a school that lets students roll over meals from one semester to the next is like trying to find a school that thinks it has too much money. Preventing rollover is one of the lamest things schools do, yet they almost all do it to some degree, making those that give students any leeway at all seem cutting-edge. One such school is OSU. Here meal plan money is transferable semester to semester, as long as a new contract is set up. And while there is a cap on the amount that carries over, OK State is one of the few in the country that allows rollover from the spring semester into either the summer or fall semesters.

  5. University of California- Davis:

    As more and more Americans are jumping on-board the health management and organic and locally-grown foods bandwagon, it only makes sense that farmers’ markets would begin to establish a presence on college campuses. From April to June and October to mid-November, UC Davis hosts one of the best in the country. What makes it even better is the fact that the school allows meal plans to be used for shopping at the market. Each swipe of the card equals $2.50 to spend on pesticide-free produce and handmade arts and crafts. Granted, $2.50 doesn’t buy much of a meal, but it still qualifies as one of the most progressive uses of a meal plan card around.

  6. Stony Brook University:

    Dining Services at this school in Long Island are some of the most forward-thinking of any we’ve found. They clearly put in significant effort to making the meal plan as painless as possible. Yes, it’s still mandatory for resident students (everyone does that) and it’s not refundable. However, students are able to either upgrade or downgrade a meal plan in the first or last three weeks of a semester. Each week, Dining Services hosts a meeting of a Meal Plan Services Committee at which students are welcomed to attend and give feedback. Stony Brook also has halal and kosher options, and students can even get meal plan food delivered.

  7. Maharishi University of Management:

    With a name like this, one would expect the Maharishi University of Management to have a philosophy that incorporates treating the body like a temple. That’s exactly what the school does in a number of ways, including meals. The school was the first in the nation to offer an all-vegetarian, all- or nearly-all organic menu. Dairy comes from a nearby organic dairy farm, and everything from the pizza to the Chinese stir fry is meat-free, part of the reason the school claims graduates are healthier when they leave than when they enroll.

  8. Villanova University:

    Nova’s meal plans are pretty much standard, although a handy feature is a series of plans known as “Inflation Fighters” that guarantee the price of the plan will remain constant throughout a student’s time at the school. Where the meal plans really shine are the extras. If there’s not time to stop at a dining hall, there’s a bag lunch program busy students can take advantage of. Under Nova’s system, parents are treated to free meals when they visit. Dining Services even has a Picnic Program, where students can use prepaid meals to have food, silverware, and grilling utensils delivered anywhere on campus.

  9. Stanford University:

    Stanford’s meal plan system ranks as cutting-edge on the strength of several nice features. First, students with peanut allergies can enjoy their meal plans at the nation’s first “peanut sensitive” dining hall, Ricker Dining. The menu is completely free of peanuts and fellow students are not allowed to bring in their own food to prevent foods with peanuts getting in. Meal plans are able to be changed up to two weeks before the end of the semester, another cool option. Greek students have access to the Row House plan, where snacks and meals are delivered by Dining Services. And the school even lets up to $50 of meal plan dollars roll over to the next quarter.

  10. Western Illinois University:

    For its part, WIU thinks its “consumer driven” meal plan system where students pay only for the items they buy, instead of paying for “meals” or food they won’t eat, is pretty cutting-edge, and they’re right. It’s also really cool, given the need to cut costs that every college student goes through but that today’s students are feeling especially hard, that the school locks in the rate of their “purchasing power” at the date of their acceptance to the school. But the coolest part of all, and the most cutting-edge, is (drumroll please) … refunds! At the end of classes in May, refunds for unused dining funds are sent in the mail. Huzzah!

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