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MIT student blogger Joel G. '18

Dining at MIT by Joel G. '18

How to not starve

Dining is such a fancy word. Think of the different mental pictures between “I’m currently eating” and “I’m currently dining.” Dining is so professional, deliberate, and sophisticated. It feels politically correct. But regardless of what you call it, there are many, many ways to acquire sustenance at MIT. Some of these include:

  • Meal plans
  • 5-star restaurants
  • Fast Food
  • Cooking for yourself (*gasp*)
  • Dumpsters, free food mailing lists, and other forms of ravenous scavenging
  • Masquerading as a member of clubs whenever they cater Chipotle to their meetings
  • Chipotle
  • Joining committees on the UA or TechX that have food budgets
  • Bakery fundraisers in Lobby 10
  • Making good friends who cook for themselves
  • Creating a group and cooking for yourselves on rotation
  • Free coffee in select, hidden lounges
  • Soylent
  • Photosynthesis

Some of these are unhealthy, unsanitary, or unethical, and should be avoided. However, there are still an overwhelming number of options that I nearly drowned in at the start of this year, so I’m going to talk about my eventual decision now that my schedule had equilibrated.

At least freshman year, your dining options are constricted greatly by where you live, because all of the dorms with dining halls have minimum meal plans that all the 1st-year students have to sign up for. McCormick, Simmons, Baker, and Next houses all require that their freshmen sign up for at least a “Basic 14” meal plan, which includes two meals every day. Maseeh’s minimum freshman plan is the “Full 19,” which includes all three meals during the week with brunch and dinner on weekends, and comes with a money-back guarantee that you’ll gain the Freshman 15 in less than a month.

But the problem with meal plans is that they’re expensive. For the 2014-15 year, the Basic 14 plan covers 420 meals and costs $4133, which averages to just under $10 per meal. The Full 19 is a little better deal, averaging about $8.58 over its 570 meals, but both of those are still more than a Chipotle burrito ($7.50 after tax at Kendall). To be fair, the dining halls are all-you-can-eat (and-maybe-even-smuggle-out-in-a-backpack), but they’re still a significant strain on a broke college students’ budget.

I live in Burton-Conner, so I have the choice of enrolling in a meal plan or not. However, regardless of the price, I signed up for the Basic 14 over the summer because I (a.k.a. my parents) wanted the stability of always having a meal ready, every day, no work required. There is a lot weight to this argument: MIT students are perpetually busy and are followed around by vague, shadowy silhouettes of impending doom psets. Having a guaranteed, prepared dinner always available relieves stress on long days and avoids the temptation to skip meals, which is very real when eating involves work.

However, the constant availability is a double-edged sword. When you pay for a meal plan, you pre-pay for all of the hundreds of meals in advance, regardless of how many you actually consume. During my first two weeks (twenty-eight meals!) I ate at the dining hall a grand total of 0 (zero!) times. Every meal missed was a dagger of guilt thrust into my soul. There were so many other things happening – club meetings, fraternity rush, spontaneous trips into Boston with Conner 3 – that I just didn’t have time to make it back to Baker every night before 8:30. It wasn’t that I wasn’t eating, it was just that I was eating elsewhere.

This is the single biggest drawback of the meal plan: that when you invariably miss meals, you feel guilty about throwing that $10 or $8.50 out the window. Or, even worse, you’ll be more reluctant to explore Boston’s many fine restaurants when tethered with economic obligation to MIT each night. You’ll start mentally adding $10 to every restaurant order; a lunch at Chipotle will magically seem like $17.50; you’ll weep and lament every opportunity cost that you pass by. In short, you will be driven insane, staring into the depths of a dry, crumbling muffin, slouched in the corner of Howard Dining Hall with a melancholy look on your forlorn face while slowly sipping a plastic glass of chocolate milk.

It only took two weeks to drive me insane, so I quickly dropped my meal plan. Fortunately, they let you cancel within two weeks of the start of school. I even got a full refund. But then I had to face reality: what was I going to eat regularly? I couldn’t splurge in Boston every night, and even the sacred Chipotle should be reserved for at most every other day. Without the mental stability of a fixed plan, I had to create a sustainable platform myself.

But first, a disclaimer: I cheat for dinners. My fraternity, Zeta Psi, cooks its own meals on weeknights, and in return for helping cook once a week, I get to eat with the brothers whenever I want. Being the shameless penny-pinching deal-making Scrooge that I am, I rarely decline that offer. Other people less fortunate must relegate themselves to actually shopping in actual grocery stores, which is part of my definition of the “adulthood” that I am actively trying to avoid. However, I still must fend for myself for breakfasts and lunches, and I found surprisingly stable and efficient system.

I still visit the dining halls frequently – you can buy individual meals for a higher overhead cost – but usually only for breakfast. Purchasing a walk-in dinner will cost $14, (that’s almost two entire Chipotle burritos!) but breakfasts here are only $8 each, which is a very stomachable price (see what I did there?) for the bowl of Fruit Loops, ham/onion/peppers/cheese omelette, two pancakes, Belgian waffle, and serving of mixed fruit (in that order) that I inhale before 7.012 Biology lecture. When I sleep through breakfast hours, or am unusually hungry, I’ll also purchase lunch from the Stata Center. For $3.55 I can get an impressively large square of impressively good pizza that is more than enough to last me till evening. Otherwise I’ll just snack on the apple that keeps magically appearing in my backpack after leaving the dining hall.

Not sure how that keeps getting there. Odd.

I still go out often for dinner, or decide to hang out with my floormates and stare at their food until they offer me some, or occasionally buy real food myself, like frozen pizza or premade cookie dough. But I value most the flexibility that I have to shift my Adventure/Stability scale as I choose. Meal plans are definitely a great deal for people who know they’ll take advantage of them, but for me, “winging it” is the best plan of all.