4 minute read

8 Best Practices for Campus Dining and Meal Plan Management

4/9/2024 7:00 PM

Meal plans have existed for decades at higher education institutions. But today’s dining and meal plan solutions can do so much more than before. By harnessing the power of technology, modern meal plans unify campus dining and other systems, simplifies processes, streamlines operations, and offers helpful features such as dining reservations, order ahead, and more.

Modernizing and optimizing your meal plan management provides benefits to business operations and the student experience on campus. It will also provide a strong and agile foundation for developing your dining services, and the solutions and vendor relationships that support them, in the future.

8 steps to success

Follow these meal plan management best practices to take advantage of dining technology functionality that integrates, automates, and is scalable to fit your needs and exceed your goals:

1. Determine the situation: does your institution operate its dining services, or do you partner with a dining service provider?
The differences between operating dining services or working with a third-party vendor can be significant and the details matter. It is critical to think through how planning, implementing, and managing meal plans will occur at your institution, who will be involved on and off campus, what technological and other resources you and your dining services provider already have, and what tools and processes are needed.

2. Research solutions first
Put the horse before the cart–get a firm grasp on what meal plan management solutions are available. Make sure to review and understand the features, options, and limitations, and evaluate how the solution will integrate and operate with your existing systems and your dining service provider. Can it handle the complexity of working with your accounting solution, campus ID system, point of sale devices (POS), and more?

3. Plan your meal plans second
Once you know the possibilities of meal plan solutions, determine what meal plans you want to offer and related key details. Most meal plans will either provide a certain number of meals per week, a certain number of meals per time period, or provide a meal equivalency to be used in retail dining locations. Think through who is eating these meals (students, staff, faculty, visitors) and the dining halls' locations, hours, and production capacity as well as other places that provide the meals. Also, review the financial details involved in meal plans, such as if a meal plan is required as part of tuition and fees, required for first-year students or those living on campus, or can be purchased.

4. Integrate with infrastructure
Campus ID and meal plan solutions should integrate with other software and hardware, especially your POS, Kiosk, mobile ordering and other connected devices. This approach delivers many benefits, including increased efficiency and productivity from flexible configurations, streamlined transactions, and automated processes. Having the ability to accept your meal plan through connected technology improves the experience for your students.

5. Be flexible to fit plans
Take advantage of the functionality of modern dining and meal plan management solutions to tailor and adapt them to your institution, your dining service provider, and the groups using the meal plans. Configure the many details of plans, such as timing and location of plan use, meal equivalences for use of meals at à la carte dining locations, acceptance of mobile payment options, and more. Consider whether you will offer meal plans for non-students and other special cases, including attendees of conferences, summer camps, alumni reunions, and Homecoming and parents & family weekends, as well as temporary workers like construction crews.

6. Set up declining balance and connect beyond the dining hall
Transform your campus ID into a “closed loop” payment option that functions like a reloadable gift card but avoids merchant card processing fees. The declining balance option operates with meal plans and other dining services, but can also be used for purchases beyond dining, from the bookstore and parking lots to laundry facilities and event tickets.

7. Get ahead of traffic with an app and kiosks
To assist your dining operations and encourage the use of meal plans, implementing a dining app and self-serve kiosks can communicate dining options, help manage orders, and improve dining hall traffic flow. Whether branded as a stand-alone app or integrated with your institutions’ apps and platforms, a dining app can show hours of operation, menus, and nutrition information and allow students to place a carry out order, make a reservation, and earn points toward a campus loyalty program.

8. Use data and analytics to improve processes
Use the reporting function in your dining management solution to deliver and analyze valuable data to you and your dining service provider. Identify trends so you can better manage staffing, supply orders, meal prep, and other key aspects of campus dining. Optimize operations by taking advantage of functions that can learn, predict, and control traffic and capacity at dining locations.

Benefits of best practices

Developing your meal plan management and related solutions and systems benefits your students and institution in other ways, as dining has the potential to foster social connection, create great experiences, and help fund the institution.

Increase student engagement in campus life
The pandemic decreased student engagement in on-campus and in-person activities and many institutions are looking for ways to foster connections and revive participation in campus life. Eating before and after classes is a common, natural activity for students, which makes dining an excellent way to encourage students to engage with each other and encounter the educational and social activities that help keep students enrolled.

Create a modern student experience
Today’s students expect their on-campus experience to mirror their off-campus experience, with technology used to conduct many daily activities. Implementing best practices in meal plans will meet student expectations for technology by providing the streamlined payments, automated processes, and phone app that students want.

Increase non-tuition revenue
Whether self operated or partnering with a dining service provider, higher education auxiliary services such as dining can be an important revenue source for an institution. Students dining on campus generates revenue from food sales, and marketing meal plans, declining balance, and other programs to students can increase sales.