Those who study in the USA live on burgers, French fries and pizza – that’s the usual cliché. In fact, the possibilities of catering during studies in the USA are anything but monotonous. More and more colleges and universities rely on regional products, fresh ingredients and entice with a rich culinary offer.
In addition, there are special dining services offered at a large number of universities in the USA. Some universities organise weekly markets on campus, others offer students the option of ordering packed lunches.
Rankings such as Best College Food (Niche) or Best Colleges for Food in America (The Daily Meal) show that many students also pay attention to the gastronomic offerings of an institution when choosing a university.
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Catering on campus in the USA
From Italian and Mexican to Greek, from Asian to classical fast food – colleges and universities in the USA offer something for every taste. On the campus, students can find numerous contact points for meals:
- Dining Halls / Dining Commons
- food courts
- Food trucks
Many American universities have dining halls or dining commons. These dining-rooms are best compared to a canteen in Germany, but they are usually smaller than in Germany. This is due to the fact that further gastronomic offers are available on campus and that students can choose from a variety of catering options.
In the dining halls there is a daily changing menu of dishes. In many cases, the “all you can eat” principle applies. Students can then fill their bellies with pasta, Asian dishes, salads, fresh fruit, meat and vegetables or cookies and pancakes. A growing number of universities also offer special menus, such as vegan food, kosher meals or a service for students with allergies or intolerances.
Of course, there are also classic fast food dishes such as burgers, pizzas and small snacks such as sandwiches at American universities. Typically American are the so-called food courts. These are large dining areas with many snack bars, restaurants and cafés. Fast food is mainly served here, but salad and smoothie bars are not uncommon.
Students can find further gastronomic offers in the Student Union building. Often there are cafés with a cosy atmosphere and snacks and drinks at lower prices. At some universities, the Student Unions also have their own restaurants or snack bars.
Meal Plans at universities in the USA
The dining services of American universities include the so-called Meal Plans or Dining Plans. At the beginning of the semester, students can set a credit for meals on campus and ensure meals during their studies in the USA. The selected amount is usually loaded onto a chip card (Meal Card). With this card, students can pay for meals in the dining halls and mostly also in other catering facilities on campus without cash.
American universities usually offer Meal Plans in several variants:
- A fixed number of meals, for example ten meals per week or a monthly quota.
- An unlimited number of meals for students who want to eat most of their meals in the Dining Halls.
Basically, it makes sense to think about which Meal Plan best suits your eating habits. At many universities, unused meals expire at the end of the semester. Some of the remaining credit is also not refunded. For students who want to make frequent use of off-campus meals or travel a lot, we recommend a less comprehensive “food package”. If the quota of the Meal Plan purchased is not sufficient, it is possible to buy individual meals in the dining halls.
Important note: Dining halls and other catering facilities on campus are usually closed during the semester break. Those who study in the USA for longer than one semester or stay at the university during the semester break should take this into account when planning.
Living in a student residence with Meal Plan
In contrast to Germany, the rooms in the US student residences are in many cases not equipped with a kitchen. As a result, students do not have the opportunity to feed themselves. In addition, the gastronomic offerings off-campus are sometimes limited, especially for universities in smaller towns or rural areas. The students are then dependent on the gastronomic offer on the campus.
For this reason, accommodation in a dormitory in the USA is often linked to a Meal Plan. Many dormitories have their own dining halls. At some universities, all undergraduate students are required to stay on campus and choose a “food package”.
Students staying in an off-campus accommodation can also purchase a Meal Plan or take advantage of the dining halls’ gastronomic facilities. However, the cost of a meal is sometimes higher.
Catering outside campus in the USA
In particular, students in advanced semesters and master’s students often opt for accommodation off-campus. You are looking for a shared apartment or move into a 1-room apartment to be more independent.
On campus, apartments without integrated kitchens are more common. Larger apartments off-campus as well as studios and bachelor apartments for one person are in many cases equipped with a kitchen or kitchenette. This means that students can take care of themselves and shop in the supermarket or Farmers Market. Often there are even one or more shopping markets on the campus. In addition, there are usually a large number of restaurants and snack bars around the campus, making it easier for students to eat during their studies in the USA.
If you decide to stay with a host family during your studies in the USA, you can book a Meal Plan. The offer ranges from one to three meals a day. Complete self-catering is also possible. Some students value getting to know typical American dishes and cultural customs such as Thanksgiving with an American family. It is important for other students to have the greatest possible flexibility and not be tied to fixed meal times.
Catering costs in the USA
The cost of board and lodging during studies in the U. S. A. depends on your individual lifestyle, the location of the university, and the type of accommodation and meals.
A room in a dormitory in the USA in combination with a Meal Plan is considered the most expensive form of board during studies in the USA. At some colleges and universities, the price of the menu plan is included in the cost of accommodation, at other colleges and universities it must be booked separately.
The exact price depends on the type of Meal Plan. Whoever wants to eat ten meals a week in the university’s gastronomic facilities pays between US$ 200 and 300 per month at some universities, and over US$ 400 per month at others. US$ 500 – 600 per month can be charged for a “food package” with an unlimited number of meals. In most cases, the costs also include so-called Flex Dollars – also known as Flex Cash or Flex Money. The money can be used by students in cafés, supermarkets and sometimes also in the bookstore or library.
Students living in an apartment or shared apartment with a kitchen have the advantage that they can prepare their own meals themselves and usually pay considerably less. The actual costs, however, depend on the type of food and where it is purchased. Fresh fruit and vegetables are more expensive than products from the freezer. Generally it is advisable to plan at least US$ 50 and more for food. Those who choose a homestay program with an integrated Meal Plan often pay between US$ 50 and 200 per month, depending on the number of meals booked.
Instead of cooking, many students prefer to eat out. They like to take advantage of special offers and regional or local specials. Taco Tuesday or Wing Wednesday in San Diego are particularly popular. Many other tips on popular restaurants and snack bars with inexpensive meals can be found in the numerous field reports on studying or semesters abroad in the USA.