A local market on campus serving NYU students.

Ah yes, our favorite collegiate hot topic within academia: meal plans. Usually one of the first questions that comes to mind when it comes to any college campus, the majority of prospective soon-to-be-Violets often ask either over the phone, on tours, or Weekend on the Square what NYU’s dining hall options are like. The usual response? A detailed monologue about how NYU offers various dining situations ranging from sit-down options at Lipton Hall and Third Avenue North, grab-and-go options at Upstein and Kimmel, and even convenience-style marts such as Jasper Kane and Sidestein. Given all these options, it’s no doubt that NYU complements these options with a comprehensive meal plan. With the exceptions of first years, undergraduates are able to choose between having “Meal Swipes” and “Dining Dollars,” depending on which dining option best suits their living situation.

“Oh me? I’m not on a meal plan,” I tell my friends, in an elevated, posh accent.

After giving it some thought (and conferring with my parents), I decided to opt out of subscribing to a meal plan this semester. Not every residence hall is the same distance from the nearest dining hall, and I prioritized living in an amazing location over being able to run to the closest dining hall in between TV commercials. However, as the semester crept up on me, stress gave a knock on my door! While I get a certain amount of money each month for groceries, I had to become responsible for feeding myself three times a day all while also making sure that a) I stayed within my budget and b) remained some sense of nourishment throughout the semester. 

So, after some trial and error and frantic calls to my mom, here’s a compiled list of tips on how to have a meal plan without having a meal…plan. 

Entrance to the Trader Joe's near the SoHo area.
While there are numerous grocery stores near campus, some of the bigger ones are farther out. This one is two floors!

Research the grocery stores closest to where you live.

This tip is the easiest to do and requires the least amount of effort. Back where I’m from, we have Publix and Kroger, and I’m very familiar with which things to get from where. Here in Manhattan, that’s not that case; depending on where you live, you might be closer to a local market, a Whole Foods, or, my personal favorite, Trader Joe’s. Each have their own pros and cons, ranging from price variations to different student discounts.

It might be worth getting familiar with the grocery options nearest to where you live (and doing this by foot!) to get a feel for the distance. You wouldn’t want to end up with three suitcases worth of groceries and then have to figure out how you’re going to get home!

Make a list before you get to the grocery store, not during.

Eleven from TV show Stranger Things grabbing multiple boxes of waffles out of the fridge at a gas station.
Eleven clearly hasn’t read this blog post yet.

If you truly want to feel like an adult, you’ll pull out a piece of paper, grab a pen, and make a bulleted list of groceries you plan to get. (Bring your Post-it note with you to the store and you’ll get extra gold stars; you’ll feel like an adult and you can send a selfie to your mom bragging about how independent you are.) While this takes more work, you’ll thank yourself later! Keeping this in mind, you also want to make sure you avoid grocery shopping on an empty stomach. 

I’m no mathematician, but aimless grocery shopping + hunger = buying out the whole store.

There have been times when I’ve gone to Trader Joe’s with the intention of getting food for dinner and only filling my basket with dried mangos, potato chips, and a succulent. What. Was. I. Thinking?! Now that I’m more *seasoned* when it comes to making a list, I make sure to give everything sections just to account for a store not having what I need. (And don’t forget about getting fruits and vegetables!)

A woman happily banging pots and pans in the kitchen.
How it feels when you have your own pots and pans.

Invest in cookware and other kitchen essentials.

This might be a good time to ask your parents to send your polka-dotted, initial-embroidered lunch box from middle school to campus, because you’ll be needing it again! The hardest time slot to account for when it comes to being nutritionally independent is lunchtime. Most often, students are on campus in between classes, which makes it very tempting to run to Chick-fil-A to grab a sandwich. However, when you realize that getting fast food every day starts to do a number on your bank account, you’ll have to plan out how you’ll make lunch. Necessities like Tupperware and reusable water bottles are important to relieve those temptations!

Even small things, like silverware and plates, slip our mind when it comes to figuring out what to get from the store. Believe me, in the same trip I bought three suitcases worth of food, but I didn’t have a single pot or plate to cook it with. (I did have a succulent and some garlic powder to my name, however, so my priorities were still in check, mind you.) Once you have all the essentials, you’re no longer able to make the “oh I can’t make this because I’m missing what I need” excuse anymore. (Protip: make lunch the night before so that you can wake up later in the mornings!)

A woman handling multiple grocery bags and dropping her coffee.
Who said that grocery shopping couldn’t be glamorous? Just make sure you have spare hands (and good coordination).

And there you have it! While the process seems like a lot, being able to have full autonomy over how your budget contributes to your nutrition is a really great feeling, even if you don’t exactly make all the right steps at first. Be sure to ask your friends about any quick, college-friendly recipes that you can share and use this opportunity to call your grandmother every once in a while (even if it means enduring an hour-long phone call just to see how much sugar to put in banana bread).


And remember: the camera always eats first.

A Georgia peach at heart, Sean is a junior in the College of Arts and Science currently studying International Relations and Public Policy, with a minor in Peace and Conflict Studies. While his southern heritage will always shine within him, Sean loves being able to unapologetically live his truth in Manhattan. Some of his favorite NYU-related gems include living with his best friends in SoHo, doing homework on the 7th floor of Kimmel, and taking the NYU bus to … literally anywhere! When he is not listening to Beyoncé’s entire discography, Sean is either working at one of NYU’s residence halls as an Office Assistant or telling his friends about his recent study-away semester at NYUAD.