When I was a Freshman in college, I was required to buy the 19-meal plan (per week). As I recall, it was between $700 and $900 per semester, and seemed rather pricey at the time. I lived in a dormitory just a hundred yards down the hill from ‘The Caf’, as we called it. I wasn’t there for many breakfasts, but it was nice to have an all-you-can-eat option at lunch and supper time.
I remember we ate (in addition to Caf food) a lot of cardboardy dollar pizzas, drank Grape Nehi sodas out of the vending machine for 35 cents apiece, and would drive to Hardee’s just before midnight. Hardee’s served milkshakes until 12 am, but they wouldn’t serve our favorite Steak & Egg Biscuits until after midnight, no matter how we cajoled them. So we’d drive two miles to the nearest Hardees at 11:50, order our milkshakes, and then stand around the lobby sipping our milkshakes until 12:01, when we’d order our biscuits.
Grape Nehi -- the nectar of my freshman year
In later years, I cooked for myself. My sophomore year, I learned to live on mashed potatoes, generic cornflakes, biscuits and macaroni & cheese. It was at that time that I firmly determined in my heart to choose a lifestyle in which I could earn enough money for decent food, or at least an occasional meat dish.
It was also at that time that I developed the ‘Little Debby Standard’, similar to the Gold or Silver standards on which currencies were at one time based. (These days, I think our currency is backed by the ‘Plastic Standard’, but that is another topic.) Anyway, the Little Debby Standard is the measure by which all grocery purchases are compared and judged, even now, some thirty years later. When purchasing a box of cereal for $3.00, I ask myself this question: “Is this box of cereal worth two boxes of Little Debby Nutty Bars?” Most of the time, the answer is a resounding ‘No!’.
My senior year, I shared a house with three or four others, and cooked a fair bit in the kitchen.
When I was a student, Mac & Cheese could still be found at the rate of four boxes for a dollar, and Campbell soups were never more than 50 cents (33 cents on sale). Ramen Noodles (by the case, of course) were less than ten cents apiece, and Little Debby snack cakes were 99 cents a box (or in rare cases, $.79 on sale). I miss those days, but am comforted by the fact that food prices have been fairly inflation-resistant, at least when compared to gasoline.
Basic sustenance for a college student
As Joshua prepares his heart and mind to attend college in the Fall, we are starting to think of what he will need to succeed. Assuming a 16-week semester, and meal plan options that offer ten or fifteen meals a week respectively, Joshua will probably need to learn to buy groceries and (at some level) prepare them for himself. We have hopes of teaching him to bake Kathy’s family’s famous Mesa Manna before he heads off to school. We’re mulling over the possibility of teaching him to make a basic tomato-based stew in a crock pot, should he venture so far into the field of culinary arts. But at the very least, he needs to know how to shop for the basic necessities of life without bankrupting himself. Hence the Little Debby Standard.
Nothing makes you hungry quite like Calculus.
Today, I took Joshua to shop with me at WinCo, a defiantly non-union grocery store in our area with decent prices. We spent the better part of 90 minutes shopping for food that a college student might need as a supplementary to a meal plan. It was fun for me to relive some of those hours of bewilderment that I spent as a single man in the aisles of the grocery store.
In retrospect, I realize how clever my Mom was. She used to take me with her to the Commissary, under the pretense of not wanting to drive. Now I realize that she was stealthily and kindly teaching me the value of my dollar when food shopping. I’m not sure this excursion was much fun for Joshua, though. He really hates shopping, and was a little panicky and wild-eyed toward the end. But I hope I managed to teach these basic principles:
- Start by buying and eating the cheapest food item in each category, and work up from there. If you can stand the generic brand, great, you’ve saved yourself all that needless marketing and packaging cost. If not, then you’ll appreciate the name-brand version all the more, or you can decide (according to the Little Debby Standard) to go without altogether.
- Avoid purchasing meats, fruits or vegetables. That is why you buy at least a partial meal plan — to avoid the expense, hassle and spoilage of preparing and presenting meats and vegetables. Let them worry about your roasts and salads and (if possible) grab fruit on the way out of the cafeteria for late-night snacks.
- Wherever possible, buy food that doesn’t require refrigeration or freezing. If (as we expect) Joshua will be sharing a common living area, kitchen and refrigerator with three other young men, room in the freezer and fridge may be at a premium, at least on occasion. Pragmatically, food that can be stored in your room is less likely to be filched by others than that left invitingly in a common fridge.
- Although food packaged in larger quantities may seem cheaper, if it spoils or is wasted, it isn’t cheaper, after all. When cooking and eating as a single man, economies of scale are hard to come by, unless you enjoy feeding your entire dormitory. (Amusingly, every time I tried to demonstrate this principle, the smaller packages were the same price or cheaper, on a unit basis. Sometimes the grocery stores just don’t cooperate.)
It turns out that a key food item for Joshua is peanut butter, which slightly surprised me.
In the end, we spent about $100 for what looked to be about two weeks’ worth of supplementary groceries, assuming a 15-meals-a-week meal plan. I had Joshua watch the prices, and keep the receipt — then we talked through it all with Kathy when we got home. As one much more nutrition-oriented, she had some important insights, but seemed to generally approve our excursion, if not necessarily our choices.
It will be interesting to see how Joshua copes with living on his own. Maybe he can persuade his cousin, Rebecca to cook for him … ?
What about you? What are your memories of college food? What advice would you offer to Joshua, as he heads off to school?