UI meal plans serve up satisfaction, but room for growth

My parents, who are alumni, recall how many years have passed since the days of fried chicken and macaroni and cheese in University dining halls. 

Then, the Freshman 15 was the exception. The Freshman 30 was the norm.

University Dining still offers those options. When it does, the line at Gregory Drive Diner at Ikenberry Commons is nearly a mile long.

Yet there are many healthier options nearby.

I will never forget my mom’s surprise when I brought her to brunch at the Lincoln Avenue Residence dining hall my freshman year. On one of the counters laid fresh salmon with blocks of cream cheese, capers and lemons.

We feasted on salmon and lox and my mom declared her money was being spent well — not just on the quality of food, but on the meal plan itself.

And I agree with her. Students in University Housing can eat at any of the University dining halls. They can choose from four meal plans, and non-University Housing students can also choose a six-meal-a-week plan. Meals are all-you-care-to-eat. 

Credits can be used at A La Carte locations when you don’t have time to sit down for a meal. Specialty restaurant nights add variety to the menu. All these options make the University’s meal plans one of the higher price tags in the Big Ten, but, like anything, improvements can be made.

Based on an informal survey I made and posted on Facebook, I found trends in the likes and dislikes of students’ dining halls across the Big Ten. Some unique aspects of schools’ meal plans caught my attention.

University of Minnesota   

Students at the University of Minnesota are given guest meal passes, where they can swipe in others for meals. They also like the freedom that the “FlexDine” option gives them. 

Students can use FlexDine Dollars (money allocated from meal plans to eat outside of the dining halls) at campus restaurants. Conversely, every meal plan includes FlexDine Dollars, something that student James Pawlowicz says can make you lose money because the money will be returned to the university after one year of inactivity on the account. 

“I’d rather just spend regular money and not convert it into perishable FlexDine,” Pawlowicz wrote in the survey.

University of Iowa

The University of Iowa switched to semester-based plans this year. Student Alexandra Carlson, who now lives outside university housing, would have liked to have this plan because her schedule varied week to week.

“Some weeks I needed more (meals), and some weeks I would barely eat at the dining hall. It was often a waste for me,” Carlson wrote in the survey.

University of Michigan

Students at the University of Michigan have a lot to say about the bad food quality, but they do appreciate that some of the dining halls are open continuously from 7 a.m. to 8 or 9 p.m.

Indiana University

Indiana University runs on I-Bucks, with which students buy individual items. If they want to get seconds, they must use more of their I-Bucks. 

I think I can speak on behalf of most students at the University of Illinois when I say that I’m thankful our meal plan operates on an all-you-care-to-eat basis when swiping into a dining hall.

But University of Illinois students would appreciate being able to swipe a guest in for a meal using a classic meal. Northwestern is one university that offers a meal plan that gives students two guest meal passes per quarter. Currently at the University of Illinois, students can swipe a guest in using credits, not meals. This is a nice option, but meals are lost after a week if not used, while credits carry over. 

When I lived in University Housing, I had the 10 classic meals and 45 cafe credits plan. Typically, I ended up using 8-10 meals per week, and almost all of my credits each week. If I wanted to swipe in a friend for dinner, it would cost 12.59 credits and I’d have to budget my remaining credits for the week. I would have liked to be able to put one of my unused meals to use.

It would also be worthwhile to look into a program like that of Minnesota’s, in which a certain amount of money from the meal plan could be used at local restaurants. 

The vendors in the Illini Union would be a good place to start, because it is a central location on the Main Quad that many students could easily use. As the University Dining menus can be repetitive, being able to eat at outside restaurants would add variety to students’ food options.

University of Illinois students’ responses to the survey were overall very positive, indicating that there is widespread satisfaction with University Dining. But as food is very important in a student’s life, we would love to see even more options in meal plans.

Kirsten is a junior in Media. She can be reached at [email protected]