Inmate Meals: What Is Food Like In Local County and City Jails?

Inmate Meals: What Is Food Like In Local County and City Jails?

Meals in county jails are designed to provide inmates with the necessary calories and nutrients to survive. However, inmate meals aren't usually focused on variety or flavor. While stays in county jails are typically short for most inmates, there are some inmates who are in the facility for more than a couple of days. For inmates stuck in county jail for lengthier sentences, spending seven months eating the same bologna sandwich every day may not provide the kind of nutrition needed to thrive. 

Luckily, jails and prisons provide supplemental food options through the canteen or commissary. Canteens may not have first-rate fresh produce and meat available, but the additional snacks can be a welcome change from the routine meal plan. It may also help to pad out the diet with extra calories.  We'll go through the kinds of meals an inmate may expect during their time at a county jail. We'll also go through the additional snacks available for purchase through the jail's canteen. 

County Jail Meal Plans

Compared to prisons, county jail inmate meals may be less varied and appealing. Many of the inmates who are in county jails are only there for a short time. For example, a lot of inmates in county jail have not even been sentenced to a crime yet and may be awaiting bail. In comparison, inmates in prison will have been convicted of long-term sentences. This long-term vs. short-term difference sometimes means a contrast in meal plan quality. 

Since the turnover rate for inmates is so high, the meal plan is likely to remain much the same. While this might work for county jail inmates only spending a few nights in the facility, long-term inmates may tire of the consistent meal plan routine. Additionally, the quality of meal plans varies depending on the city and county. Some facilities may be focused on cost-cutting measures that impact the kind of meals inmates receive while incarcerated. 

However, even with cost-cutting measures, county jails are required to provide enough food for inmates. This usually includes three meals a day with no longer than 14 hours in between meals. Jails will also need to consider the amount of calories that an inmate consumes per day. Jails will need to provide the recommended amount of calories for inmates, which is about 2,000 calories a day. 

Meal Schedule

Inmate meals are typically executed on a tight schedule. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are always served at the same time every day. Inmates are expected to show up on time for these meals. A typical day might include breakfast at 7 am, lunch at 12 pm, and dinner at 5 pm. 


What does a typical breakfast look like in a county jail? Breakfast varies depending on the facility. However, at every county jail, inmates can expect to receive some kind of breakfast meal. This meal might include milk and cereal, fruit, oatmeal, eggs, or bread. 


Lunches are generally the smallest inmate meals of the day and are typically served cold. One of the most common lunches in county jail is a slice of bologna, two pieces of bread, a piece of fruit, and a bag of chips. Water or a carton of milk is usually served with the lunch. 


The kind of meal served for dinner varies widely depending on the jail. Some jails might only offer another cold meal option–sandwich, fruit, cookie, etc. Other jails might serve a cheap hot meal, like canned pasta and canned vegetables. 

Nutritional Content of Inmate Meals

County jails will follow a meal plan that offers the recommended number of daily calories. However, the nutritional content may vary depending on the county jail's meal plan. Some facilities offer more varied meals, which allows for more nutrient intake. For inmates who are in county jail for close to a year, eating the same meals may not have the best nutritional value. 

Additional Food Options

At county jails, inmate meals can be quite basic. Fortunately for inmates, county jails offer a canteen. The canteen is an option for inmates to purchase additional food and other items not offered by the jail. Though the canteen offers food options, they are similar to the kinds of snacks available in a convenience store. 

How does the canteen at a county jail work? The canteen operates differently from a store. Typically inmates will only be able to access the canteen a limited amount of times per month. Most facilities offer inmates the chance to order their items once a week. Jails will also typically restrict the amount of funds an inmate can spend at the canteen at a given time. 

While the canteen doesn't offer fresh food or top-rate meals, inmates can purchase some of their favorite snacks or drinks that the jail doesn't offer. Some of the most popular items that inmates buy at the canteen may include soda, chips, candy, cookies, ramen, and instant soup. These items may help to pad out a meal plan that offers the lower end of calorie recommendations. However, typically these foods don't hold a lot of nutritional value, so they are generally not a great meal replacement option. 

Meal plans at county jails vary widely depending on the individual jail. Some jails may offer a more varied and appealing meal plan, while others may offer repetitive and lackluster meal options. However, typically all jails offer a canteen where inmates can supplement their diet with snacks, like instant noodles or chips. If you're wondering about a particular jail meal plan, you may want to head to the county jail's website to find more information. You'll also find information about adding funds to an inmate's canteen account. If you want to find your county's jail website, we have a county jail lookup option.