Which dining options are best for university students?

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Whether you're heading off to university for the first time or returning to campus for yet another year, you may be wondering how to effectively plan out your dining budget. While there are a variety of options available, some are more cost-effective than others. In this article, we explore the pros and cons of 3 dining options so you can make the best decisions to save on food this semester.

UNIVERSITY FOOD COURTS: SOCIAL HOTSPOTS, BUT OFTEN OVERCROWDED

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As you might expect, on-campus university food courts are exceptionally convenient for 1st-year students. To begin with, food courts are often located centrally within 5-10 minutes walk from most buildings where classes are held. Not only does this mean such outlets are easy to find-reducing the chances of getting lost (or missing lunch just searching for a place to eat)-it also means that all students are encouraged to convene for meals together.

University food courts are, in fact, one of the most popular meeting grounds for new students and as a result, can become quite crowded. NUS's courts, for example, feed an estimated 50,000 people daily, serving a meal every 1.4 seconds on average. With such an overflow of students and resulting long lines, students might expect to wait about 10 minutes or more for a meal, and then have difficulty finding seating. These drawbacks can counter the perceived convenience of centrally located food courts.

Nonetheless, university food courts are often quite cheap. The cost of a typical main dish ranges from S$3.50-S$7.00, which is lower than that found at many off-campus restaurants. As a result, students who have a limited budget but who want to build connections with their classmates may be especially interested in on-campus dining options.

NATURAL FOOD OUTLETS: GOOD FOR YOUR HEALTH, NOT FOR YOUR WALLET

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Maintaining a healthy lifestyle understandably includes consuming plenty of fruits and vegetables-in fact, inadequate consumption has been linked to poor academic achievement in multiple studies. Singapore's Health Promotion Board recently initiated its Healthier Dining Programme, making it far easier to find healthier dining alternatives throughout the country. Currently, there are 1.5k+ cafes, restaurants, quick-service restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops and more that are endorsed by the government programme for having healthier menus. As better-for-you options proliferate, students can access healthy options more easily than ever before.

Nonetheless, off-campus outlets can never quite beat the convenience of on-campus dining. Travelling for pick-up requires time and may incur transit costs. Additionally, these expenses can add onto prices that may already be a bit elevated. Healthy outlets offering organic foods are often pricier, for example, because organic food is more expensive to produce. While research shows that 81 per cent of people are willing to pay a premium for organic, all-natural products, this simply may not be viable for a student on a budget. As a result, it may be worth visiting such outlets just on an occasional basis, as a supplement to an overall cheaper diet.

FAST FOOD OUTLETS: ACCESSIBLE & AFFORDABLE, AT THE COST OF HEALTH

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Finally, university students might consider simply heading out to the nearest fast-food place and ordering a meal on-the-go. There are plenty of "quick service restaurants" throughout Singapore-86 KFC's, 50 Burger Kings, 48 Subways and more-and many are now located on university campuses as well. Fast food is also relatively affordable-though not as much as some might think. The average cost of a fast food combo (item, side and drink) in Singapore is S$8.94, which is higher than the price range for many university food court alternatives.

Eating at fast food places can have additional drawbacks. For on-campus locations, student crowds can still lead to lines and waiting. Additionally, menu items tend to be high in fat, sugar and calories. Beyond increasing the risk of obesity and heart disease, excessive junk food consumption has also been linked to increased psychological distress. Nonetheless, eating at fast food outlets once and a while may still offer a break from repetitive eating habits.

MAINTAIN YOUR BUDGET BY STRIKING A BLANCE

Overall, incoming university students may want to consider balancing their meals across a variety of outlet types. Dining at university food courts for most meals may provide enough budget relief for an occasional off-campus lunch, and sticking to a relatively healthy diet may better accommodate trips to fast food outlets. Regardless of choice, students may still want to consider asking their parents for a supplementary credit card, or applying for a card specifically tailored to young adults. Several options offer cashback on dining that can go towards offsetting other bills.

This article was first published in ValueChampion. 

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