When you buy a Disney vacation package or rent Disney Vacation Club points, you have the option to add a Disney Dining Plan to your vacation. There are a variety of options for every budget and type of eater. Often Disney will offer the lowest form of the plan, Quick Service, "free" as a promotion during certain times of the year. I say "free" because it is there is generally a trade off meaning it is not offered when there are discounted rooms, etc. The quick service plan offers 2 quick service (fast food type) meals and 1 snack per night stayed. For a 2-3 day trip, I may be able to eat that kind of food for that duration, especially since if you look into the restaurants before leaving there are some good choices. Downtown Disney especially has good choices for quick service, such as Wolfgang Puck Express. For a trip of our duration, 8 nights, we could not have eaten only fast food for that long. The choice are limited and repeat themselves from place to place, especially for kids.
The highest option is Deluxe Dining which includes3 meals of any kind plus 2 snacks per night. It also includes a refillable mug to use at your resort's quick service. This is a lot of food and a lot of time out of the parks to eat. If you are a foodie, you may enjoy this, but you would need to do some research before you leave to pick the best restaurants because you have to remember, you are at a theme park and a lot of the restaurants are typical theme park food. There are some really good ones at resorts, however. If you are planning a lot of dinner shows or character meals, both of which may require 2 credits per meal, the Deluxe plan may be right for you. I would consider carefully before planning a lot of these on a first visit though because a lot of long meals will take you out of the parks a lot. Another thing to consider with the Deluxe Dining plan is whether you will actually spend what you have paid for the plan, as it is quite costly.
For our first trip, we purchased the basic Disney Dining Plan which includes 1 table service, 1 quick service, and 1 snack per night and 1 refillable mug to use at your resort. You may use the meals any way you like, combining 2 table service credits for a show or character meal or utilizing 2 table services 1 day while using 2 quick services another. All your meal allotments go on your room card and are taken off when you order.
What I liked about using the Disney Dining plan is that our food was prepaid. We didn't have to carry money or a card around to worry about food or keep track of what we were spending on it. The only thing we spent extra on for food was about 1 snack a day because everybody usually needed a water or something to drink during in addition to the ice cream or fruit or whatever they'd had as their snack credit. Many times we used the snack credit to get a muffin, croissant, or fruit in the morning with coffee or hot chocolate in our refillable mug and that was our breakfast so you can stretch the plan to 3 meals if you eat a light breakfast.
One more note on dining, most Disney books recommend planning meals for off-prime times to avoid long lines and have more time in the parks. For example, lunch at 11:00 or 1:30 rather than noon, dinner at 4:00 or 7:00 rather than 5:00-6:00. If you pay for the Disney Dining plan, you will definity want to utilize the Advance Dining Reservation system at 180 days before your trip. Many popular character meals, such as Chef Mickey's, fill up early. In this way, you can be sure you will have a seat at places you want to eat and use those credits rather than eating wherever you can find a spot when you get there.
The Disney Dining plan worked great for us and we would definitely utilize it again if we make it back to Walt Disney World.