This semester, at least, I'll be on campus every weekday. I'd like to be on campus more hours than are technically required just to go to my classes, because it's usually easier for me to do productive work away from home. So the question arises of what to do about lunch.
I considered bringing food from home, which is cheap and offers a lot of control over content. But honestly I've always sucked at follow-through on that, and every idea I have sort of sucks. A cold lunch is not that appealing. A hot lunch requires more forethought, and then you have to heat it up, and usually bring the containers back home for washing. That's a lot of trouble.
There are a various places to eat near my building. On campus there is a food court with many inexpensive options like Taco Bell and Chik-Fil-A. Off campus, but still nearby, are some more sandwich shops and the like. The downsides to this plan are that the food tends to be both unhealthy and more costly than I'd prefer on my stipend.
Instead, I opted for a meal plan, like any student. The one I got gives me a meal every day of the semester (85 in total) and the cost per meal is $5.09 including tax. The $5 cost fits into my original budget pretty well, the meals are all-you-can-eat, and it's very convenient. But is the food tolerable?
I've now eaten at a dining hall twice, and the answer is yes. Yesterday I ate at the dining hall that emphasizes more healthful foods (nothing fried, for instance) and I had a very reasonable, healthy, and enjoyable meal. Today I ate at the dining hall nearest to my office and had another decent meal. In addition to the usual hot cafeteria foods (which tend to have very reasonable options, at least so far), there is a salad bar (self-serve) and a sandwich bar (not self-serve). The place I ate yesterday also had a pasta bar and a panini bar. The biggest dining hall has a grill-type area with burgers as well. And there are numerous drink options including a tolerable imitation of iced tea.
I won't say it's gourmet, or even particularly well-prepared, but it's easy to get a healthy protein, some good vegetables, a to-die-for roll, and a salad, and that's a steal for $5. I also like the fact that I'm not wasting much packaging. I kind of hate when you get fast food and everything is all individually wrapped and it comes in a bag. The dining hall is, of course, real plates and silverware and non-disposable cups. I like getting out for lunch, going somewhere, and the atmosphere of the dining halls has been all right so far, with good music in the background too.
Next year, when I'm a TA/TF for real, the deal gets even better. If you are willing to invest in 40 meals, which roll over from semester to semester, then as a faculty or staff person, you only have to pay $3.79 per meal (including tax). At that price it starts to seem silly to bother doing anything else.