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When I was applying to colleges, one of the things I was most worried about was how I would survive on the meal plan. I’d heard horror stories from my older friends about food at their colleges: food poisoning from raw meat, cereal for every meal, salad bars with wilted lettuce and squashed tomatoes… the list goes on. Hopkins, thankfully, has far surpassed my expectations of college dining, providing a huge variety of healthy options for all dining needs and preferences. Still, being away from my mom’s cooking for the first time was a big change, and figuring out all the options of the meal plan was pretty daunting at first. Below are my tips for taking full advantage of the meal plan at Hopkins, and what I wish I’d known at the beginning of my freshman year.

1. Take Advantage of the Two-Week Plan Change Period

This is a big one, especially in freshman fall. Freshmen at Hopkins have five different plans to choose from, each with a different number of meal swipes (which can be used at all-you-can eat dining halls like the Fresh Food Cafe or Nolan’s) and dining dollars (which can be used at Levering Kitchens, Bamboo Cafe, or the Charles Street Market, in addition to the dining halls). Going into freshman year, I started out at 14 meal swipes a week with 395 dining dollars for the whole semester, but quickly realized that it would have been better for me to be on the 19 meals a week plan, as I preferred to eat breakfast at the Fresh Food Cafe (FFC) rather than in my room. I switched to the 19 meals a week plan when second semester came around, but now I know I didn’t need to wait that long; for the first two weeks of the semester, students can change their meal plan to better suit the needs of their schedule. I recommend trying to go through your schedule as realistically as possible for those first two weeks, so you know what meal plan might be the best for you.

My friends and I on one of the last days of school last year, enjoying a final meal in the FFC.

2. Switch It Up

For the first few months of freshman year, the FFC left very little to be desired, and its proximity to my dorm meant that my friends and I ate there for pretty much every meal. By November, I realized that I had barely spent any of my dining dollars, and despite the wide variety of options at the FFC, I was craving a bit of a change. The solution to this was simple: switching it up! My friends and I began going to Levering Kitchens for lunch several times a week, or making a stop at Crepe Studio in Charles Street Market for a sandwich, crepe, bagel, or flatbread. This put my dining dollars to good use, added some variety to my meals, and left me some extra meal swipes to use at the end of the week if I ever needed them.

My friend Ciara and I decided to change things up one weekend in October last year, and went into Charles Village for pizza instead of the FFC.

3. Use the JHU Mobile App to Keep Track of Meal Swipes

Until I discovered this trick, I tried each week (usually in vain) to keep track of how many meal swipes I had spent so far, often needlessly stressing that I would run out. Sometime in the middle of second semester, I realized that Hopkins provides a JHU Mobile app where you can log in and view how many meal swipes and dining dollars you have left. This became extremely helpful for budgeting both my swipes and my dining dollars, especially if I knew I had plans to go to specifically go to the FFC later in the week and needed to save some swipes for that.

4. Get Your Money’s Worth Out of Meal Swipes

At the FFC and Nolan’s, a meal swipe is worth so much more than just a single meal! If used correctly, one meal swipe can get you dinner, dessert, a beverage, and breakfast for the next day. For example, many nights for dinner at the FFC last year, I would fill up my plate with a good meal, have a cookie and a mug of tea and chat with my friends afterwards, and then on the way out grab an apple in case I didn’t have time to get breakfast the next morning. Also, both dining halls have take-out boxes and cups that can be used to bring out food, so I could often get an extra meal out of a meal swipe by filling up a to-go box and saving it for later.

A typical FFC brunch from one weekend last year.

5. Budget Your Dining Dollars

From my experience last year, there are two types of people at Hopkins: those who spend all their dining dollars by March, and those who end the year with 200 extra and nothing to spend it on. I leaned more towards the latter category, and spent my surplus by bringing my dining dollar-less friends to Charles Street Market and sending them on a shopping spree with my meal plan. It’s pretty simple to make yourself a budget for dining dollars; if you start with 395 and there are around 14 weeks in a semester, you can figure that you should be spending around $28 per week, which is more than enough on top of meal swipes. If you notice yourself going through dining dollars too quickly, I would definitely recommend trying to stick to a budget (using the JHU Mobile app!) and balance how many meal swipes versus dining dollars you use in a week.

6. Take Advantage of Off-Campus Options (In Moderation)

Charles Village, the Baltimore neighborhood in which Hopkins resides, has more than enough dining options for restaurants and grocery stores. My friends and I love to go to Chipotle, Honeygrow (a make your own salad/noodle bowl place), THB (a bagel shop), R-House (an upscale food court with constantly-changing options), Pure Raw Juice (a juice bar with smoothies and acai bowls), and many more, but I try to limit myself to one off-campus meal a week, and never really feel the need to do more than that. In terms of grocery stores, there are two within a twenty-minute walk of campus: Mom’s Organic Market, which is a bit pricier but sells all-natural whole foods, and Giant, which has pretty much any food item you could ever wish for. As a freshman, I never really felt the need to grocery shop, but having a more expansive kitchen sophomore year has let me take advantage of these options a bit more.

My friend Nicole and I on a grocery run at Giant last winter.

Overall, navigating a college meal plan isn’t so bad with the right preparation. Above all, I’m grateful that Hopkins provides so many different food options both on and off campus; I never get bored or feel like I have to do the same thing every single day, which is really refreshing. My favorite thing about dining at Hopkins, though, has been the community! Some of my favorite memories of last year are the hours my friends and I would spend in the FFC at dinner, taking up an entire table and sharing stories and plates of french fries. Hopkins Dining also throws events like Sterling Brunch, a fancy Sunday brunch with performances and insane decorations, which are always lots of fun to attend with friends and make for a nice change from the typical dining hall.

Talking to my high school friends at other schools, I still hear the dining hall horror stories- and each time I’m given one more reason why I’m so happy to be at Hopkins!