I get it now.
This is the second summer I've had to fend for myself, and I've had two truths reinforced:
1. The microwave is that one friend that you enjoy hanging out with but you know is a bad influence on you.
2. There is a lot more to consider with meals than I thought.
At UVa as a first year, you are required to have a meal plan with no fewer than 13 meals. It's a beautiful idea. You don't want to have to worry about a history paper and where the next meal will be. There are three dining halls, all buffet-style, and any student can visit any of them.
Along with every meal plan come Plus Dollars. I've heard them called Monopoly money, but they can be used at UVa food shops like the on Grounds Pizza Hut, Chick-a-fila, Wilsdorf Cafe, Sbarros, Greenberries, the Castle, and West Range Cafe. Plus Dollars are great for adding variety or for a quick snack when the day is busy.
Most meal plans at UVa cost the same amount of money whether they are unlimited meals per week or 10 per week (available after the first semester). The reason is that the fewer the number of meals per week, the more Plus Dollars that come with the plan. Athletic and Residential plans cost more but that's because they also include perks such as banquets and for athletes, an additional dining hall to choose from (it's closer to the practice fields than the other three).
Roughly speaking, the cost per semester is $1800, and when I heard this the first time, I started counting in my head. Now, I'm no math major, but I said to myself that's for four full months worth of food (half of August plus half of December). Living on my own, I spend roughly half of that at the grocery store, so what gives?
Well, there are certain unavoidable truths that convinced me to sign up for my third meal plan in a row:
- They cook really well, and I don't.
- They provide an excellent variety of food.
- The dining halls are much closer to me than any non-UVa store.
- I don't have to spend time cooking, shopping, preparing, or cleaning up.
- They're open from 7am to 10pm most nights, so the hours are great.
- Variety, variety, variety. And far more culinary creativity than I have.
- Theme Meals. Yes.
Halloween, Thanksgiving, St. Patrick's Day, random happy days--these are the best reasons to get a meal plan. For Halloween each dining hall had a massive sheet cake that must have been about four feet by six. This Spring Runk Dining Hall bought a fifteen foot strawberry shortcake that was unbelievably delicious.
Every dining hall has a salad bar, some sort of soup, and at least three main courses to choose from for lunch and dinner. Breakfast is fairly standard (but still good): eggs, potatoes, waffles, omelets to order, pancakes, cereal, juice. For vegetarians and vegans, there are options at every meal. The same goes for celiacs, and if anyone does have an allergy, he or she can talk to a chef about tailored meals. In general, they're very good at taking care of students. Also, UVa Dining is very good at making meals catered to certain religious restrictions (Passover, Lent, Ramadan). The head chefs are also highly visible and love to hear feedback. I know that's how we had grilled salmon for dinner one night.
If you ever want to know what each dining hall is serving for each meal for a given week, just go to UVa's CampusDish website. The dining hall names (Newcomb, O Hill, and Runk) are on the far left side next to other on Grounds establishments. Click on each to see what they're offering. I'm not sure if the menu is open in the Summer, but it is definitely operational during the Fall and Spring.
Other Amenities Included in a Meal Plan
In addition to Plus Dollars, meal plans come with guest swipes. These extra meals come in handy if your family comes to visit, or if you run out of meals in a week. Typically, meals have about ten guest swipes per semester. I should note that the number of meals per week does not roll over; they will not accumulate. Plus Dollars roll over from Fall to Spring but not from Spring to the next Fall.
As for which meal to pick, I strongly suggest fifteen meals per week to start. It's a solid number that comes with a decent amount of Plus Dollars. Typically, a student won't go to three meals per day. Either they wake up too late for breakfast, skip lunch, or use Plus Dollars to grab a snack rather than use a meal swipe. Also, if you find out you don't have enough meals, you can upgrade your meal plan at any point (a perk of each plan costing the same price); however, you can only reduce the number of meals per week for the first two weeks of each semester.