Choosing your meal plan on campus isn’t usually a high priority for college students and their families – but maybe it should be.

Nobody’s ever going to call it fine dining, but a college student has to eat, and since there is usually a price tag attached to that experience, you might as well select the best meal plan you can – and understand how to maximize that scenario.

Check out the Cafeteria before Choosing the College

When considering a college, visit the campus and try the food in the cafeteria. If you don’t like the cafeteria food the first time you try it, you’ll hate it after four years.

Taste-testing the food is important because bad food can increase college costs. If you don’t like the food, you will be more likely to eat out. Since meal plans are often mandatory, you’re still paying for the food even if you don’t eat it.

Consider the Cost of the Meal Plan

Job one is knowing what your meal plan will cost – and depending on where you go to college, that cost can vary a lot.

For example, at the University of Iowa, meal plans are mandatory for students living in a university dormitory. Students pay $725 for one semester’s worth of meals, at five meals per week. Unlimited meals can be had for $1,850.

Other schools, like the University of Alabama-Birmingham, charge a universal fee ($1,875) for each of two meals plans.

Per meal costs on campus can be high, too. For instance, at UCLA, the average cost of a single breakfast is $9.75 for students who reside in on campus housing. Lunch goes for $11.25 and dinner costs $12.25 at UCLA.

Five Steps in Choosing the Meal Plan That Works for You

To get the best and most affordable plan, college students, and their parents who may be paying for those meals, should understand how college meal plans work, and what each (literally) brings to the table. Here’s a checklist of things you need to know to make the best meal plan selection.

Know the Swipe Model

By and large, college meal plans operate like most credit and debit cards, under the so-called “swipe” system. Students simply pay for a plan in advance with a certain number of meals (although some offer unlimited meals) and are provided a card (it could be their student ID), which they use to swipe every time they get a meal.

The more card swipes you get, the more a college meal plan will cost. As the UCLA model shows, each can cost up to $12 (and more, depending on which school you attend), so meal costs can and do add up.

Some schools may also offer a swiping model based on per-item costs, (i.e., what you actually get on your tray). That way, a sandwich and a bottle of water cost less than a full meal, with soup, salad, an entrée and dessert. Ask your college if that option is available, or if you’re visiting campus on a college tour.

Track your Swipes

It’s up to the college student to know how many swipes are left on their meal plan card. The idea is to max out perfectly on the number of swipes you’re allowed on a daily, weekly, monthly or semester basis.

Any unused swipes are a waste of money, so keep an eye on the number of swipes you’re using early in a semester. Most schools give you a grace period for a few weeks, allowing you to adjust the number of meals you really need on a meal plan, upward or downward.

Use those early weeks to determine the number of meals that work for you, and try to eat your way all the way up the maximum meals you’re allowed on your plan.

On the other hand, feeling obligated to eat every meal can contribute to the freshman fifteen, so perhaps it is better to match the meal plan to your eating habits than vice versa.

Make Your Meal Swipes Count

Another way to maximize your meal plan swipes is to eat a real meal. Using your card to swipe for a single banana is a waste of money, given that the next student who gets a salad, pasta, a drink and dessert is paying the same amount of money, per swipe, for a meal.

Better yet, bring a Tupperware container and bring your leftovers back to the dorm instead of throwing them in the trash. Some colleges may frown on this habit, so check with the dining hall staff first.

Check Your Dorm Dining Options

If you’re going to aim for a low-meal-count plan – say five meals per week – don’t do so until you’ve checked out your dormitory’s kitchen and room cooking options. If, for example, you have a dormitory with good kitchen facilities (and not every dorm has one), you can scale back on your meal plan numbers and cook for yourself several times a week.

That will mean going grocery shopping, but that’s okay. Use the money saved on a lower-cost meal plan to shop for yourself, and see if you can’t get a small fridge and microwave in your room, so you can prepare some of those great meals mom and dad sent you on your own.

Bulk Up

One last tip – go bulk shopping to save on meal plan costs.

Have mom or dad stop off at a nearby Costco and buy non-perishable food – think power bars, peanut butter, and nuts – and store it in your dorm room. That will curb those snack attacks so common with (still growing) college students and help avoid paying for the higher-cost meal plans.