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The debate on whether to invest in a university meal plan

Meal Plans are not worth the money

Justin Dallaire
Justin Dallaire
Justin Dallaire | Fulcrum Contributor

MANY FIRST YEAR students will make the same mistake I made three years ago: they’ll purchase the largest meal plan available. They’ll be sold by the promises that meal plans are time- and money-savers and a great alternative to eating Kraft Dinner three times a day. But for  many students, these meal plans will turn out to be nothing more than a waste of money.

One of the problems lies with the University of Ottawa’s Food Services. Despite admirable attempts to improve, there has been little success in bringing about enough change to campus eating facilities.

Don’t get me wrong—they have made some improvements. Students eating one or two meals on campus per week have it a lot better today than they did when I first started here. But for those thinking of eating 10 to 15 meals per week on campus, you’ll soon find yourself sick of pizza, burgers, and a limited number of healthier options. It’s no wonder students continue to rate the U of O’s food services as some of the poorest in the country.

Another problem is that students must commit to eating $2,900 to $3,600 worth of food on campus (for a two-semester plan). So what happens when you start getting sick of cafeteria food? You don’t have a choice other than to chow down anyway, because your money expires at the end of the second term. Luckily for me, I had a brother who could help me polish off my balance, but others lost hundreds of dollars.

Instead of purchasing a meal plan, consider saving your money and buying groceries occasionally. Of course, no one likes making food during midterms and finals, but trust me when I say you’ll come to crave a homemade sandwich or salad when you’re not as busy. With the cash you’ll save, you’ll most likely be able to afford more nourishing options when you do decide to eat out. Besides, it’s not forbidden to use cash at the cafeteria, so what’s to gain from donating thousands of dollars to the school?

Admittedly, some good did come from the meal plan I purchased in first year: I can still stomach the smell of Kraft Dinner. However, my advice remains this: think twice before paying for a meal plan. If you’re going to purchase one, make sure you understand the commitment. You might regret it when you’re stuck waiting in line for a crummy burger that, in the long run, will cost you more than your tuition.

Meal Plans are the lesser evil

Jesse Colautti
Jesse Colautti
Jesse Colautti | Fulcrum Staff

I’M NOT GOING to lie. The meal plans offered at our university are not ideal. The food is a little overpriced, the choices can become repetitive, and the stress of trying to manage a fixed account throughout an entire year can be a challenge. Even so, what you might not realize now is that despite your moaning and groaning, a meal plan will force you to do exactly what you would not do otherwise—eat.

University can become extremely stressful at times, and the last thing you want to worry about is where and when your next meal will be. There are long stretches of time in a semester when it is not possible to cook or go hunting for food in the city while maintaining an adequate effort at school.

Take the advice from somebody who didn’t have a meal plan and instead survived those stretches of time on coffee alone. A 10-minute trip to refuel at the café beats losing 15 pounds and looking like Alexander Supertramp near the end of his time in Alaska.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t learn how to cook and provide for yourself. During my year in residence, my friends and I fell in love with having floor dinners every weekend and cooking up extravagant meals that we had seen Jamie Oliver make, but there are only so many hours in a day. Moreover, there was only so much we could create in the limited and crammed kitchen area of residences, especially without an oven. There’s a time and place to cultivate your love for cooking, but your first year of university might not be it.

Another critique aimed at the meal plans—how inflexible the amounts are and how difficult they are to fully spend—seems, once again, like the better alternative to starving. Meal plans force you to pay up front for food you are going to eat in April, and although prioritizing money for food may seem obvious now, your priorities might shift after a couple beers on a Saturday night. I’ve made it through two Aprils now on little more than Mr. Noodles and Kraft Dinner. While those meal options might seem glamorous to you now, I promise they won’t seem quite so appealing after days when the only difference between your lunch and dinner is the flavour of the mix you decide to use.

This might have seemed like a backhanded compliment for meal plans, but believe me when I say my endorsement of them is genuine. Unless you are the second coming of Julia Child, save the worry about food for another time in your life. For now, enjoy your minor food concerns, like avoiding the stir fry days at the cafeteria and wondering whether or not you can possibly stomach another buffet dinner at Jazzy’s.