College without a meal plan

How to Survive Without A Meal Plan in College [Money-Saving Tips]

Is it possible to learn how to survive without a meal plan in college?

Let’s be real: college meal plans are the worst. My first year of college, my school forced me to purchase a $5,000 meal plan which included three meals a day. Did I use it? Of course not.

Yes, it was useful for lunches on campus, and brunch on the weekends (when I wasn’t working), but it ended up costing me more money than it saved. Not to mention the food was notoriously gross 🤢

As soon as I moved off campus, I had the option to choose between having a modified meal plan or to go without altogether. I chose the latter.

It sounded great! I was going to be in control of my own meals? No more crappy dining hall food? What could be better?! It only took me about a week and one very expensive trip to the grocery store to figure out this wasn’t going to be easy.

First of all, groceries are expensive! I mean, really expensive💰 I was spending over $150 each trip I made! What’s worse is I realized I had no idea how to grocery shop for myself. Still, I wasn’t going to just cave and get a meal plan the next semester, no way! I had to figure out how to survive without a meal plan and how to survive on my limited budget.

In this guide, I’ll share how to survive without a meal plan in college. It takes a bit of dedication and habit-setting, but it’s such a good way to prepare for the dreaded “real world.”

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1. Don’t Eat Out (All the Time)

First, I have to admit that I have the horrible habit of buying food at the grocery store and then still continuing to go out anyway. I mean, why cook when there are so many walkable taco places, right?

Who doesn’t love buying fancy $8 coffee to “treat yourself” after staying awake through Shakespeare? How can you avoid the 2 am milkshake cravings?

These quick meals add up fast, and they can be really expensive compared to cooking your own meals. Is it really hard to bring your own coffee to class? Not really. Is it really hard to have some go-to snacks on hand for when the late night munchies kick in? Nope.

Pretend you’re in grade school again and start packing your own lunches. I won’t judge you if you pack yourself a lunchable (actually I’ll be really jealous). Here are some ideas to inspire you to end your eating out addiction!

Also, I highly recommend buying a cute lunch bag or lunch box. This makes packing lunch so much more fun (and they’re really practical). I personally love bento boxes, but here are some recommendations that are easy to clean and fit in a small backpack. A “hard” container is more durable, in my opinion, and it won’t get smooshed with all your textbooks 😂


✨ Related: Start your own profitable college blog!

2. Create a Food Budget That Works for You

When I first moved off campus, I didn’t know to include food in my monthly budgets. This was a big mistake because I often found I was too stretched for cash which is important when it comes to eating, obviously. I’ll be honest, I definitely relied on credit cards way more than I should have.

Allotting myself a certain amount of money for food helped me feel more secure and responsible. I only allow myself to eat out once or twice a week, and this limitation helps me keep expenses in check. I’ve also started using apps to get the most out of my grocery budget. Here are the best ones to try:

  • Ibotta: This app gives you rebates for stuff you already buy, so it’s basically free money. Using Ibotta, I’ve made over $40 in just a few weeks, so I swear by this app.
  • Fetch: I love Fetch because it automates savings, especially if you grocery shop online or use a store savings card. There are so many grocery deals on here! Sign up with my link and you’ll get 100 points when you snap your first receipt.

Another idea is to use a budget or life journal to keep your finances in check. Making money in college isn’t always easy, so that’s why you’re trying to survive without a meal plan in college in the first place. These journals are a great option to keep all of your money in check 💸

3. Always Make a List

Next, the grocery store can be a dangerous place for someone without a list! (Another pro tip is to never go grocery shopping while hungry.)

I always create a list on my phone beforehand and mark things off electronically. Veggies and meats make up the largest percentage of purchases, whereas if I have anything left over I use those funds on snacks.

If I encounter something not on my list, I force myself to think about whether I really need it. If it wasn’t on my list, odds are I don’t, but I do occasionally find unexpected deals too good to pass up. Avoid the urge to walk through all aisles, stick to your list and get in and out. Here’s my healthy college grocery list to get you started.

Pro grocery shopping tip: Use the calculator app on your phone to constantly add in the price as you add things to your cart. This is a great way to actually recognize the cost of everything in your cart, and weigh the value of your purchases.

4. Stop Ordering Pizza

This is mostly a tip just for me, because pizza is my biggest weakness.

Pizza is the number one killer of college students bank accounts. My college town had the most glorious pizza place called 5 Star Pizza which delivered EVERY DAY until 3 AM! What a beautiful business model! They even had an infamous “Piezilla” pizza which was so huge it didn’t fit through the front door and needed to be turned on its side.

Save yourself the trouble and try to adhere to a pizza schedule. For instance, instead of splurging for pizza twice a week, try to keep it to every other week. Balance your pizza addiction with healthier foods, or make your own healthy pizza at home. Click here for more ideas on healthy eating in college.

5. Learn How to Cook

I’m a serial food burner. If I could burn water, I would. It doesn’t matter if I’m using the microwave or the oven, something gets burned inevitably. I swear the kitchen can smell fear.

That being said, even I am capable of making a couple of dishes for myself. Even if you’re still living in a dorm room there are so many things that can be prepared in the microwave all you need is a little creativity. You don’t need to be a chef to make good food. Keep your ingredients simple and just try not to get burned.

Also, don’t underestimate the power of a slow cooker. These are some in-dorm cooking tools I absolutely swear by because they’re foolproof 👩🏼‍🍳

Survive College Without a Meal Plan

Being a college student isn’t easy! College dining hall food might not be great, but there’s no denying it’s easier. However, with some work and a balanced budget, you can navigate without a meal plan!

Happy grocery shopping! How do you survive without a meal plan in college? What are your favorite things to cook?

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Make the most of college without a meal plan
Survive without a meal plan in college


Hey, I'm Sam! I'm the blogger and full-time writer behind Samanthability. I blog about starting your own blog and rocking post-grad life. You can find me exploring Seattle, binge-drinking iced coffees, and reading spicy romance books. I'm glad you're here!