The menu of a Japanese school lunch is considered the best in the world. Since it’s also part of the law enacted by the Japanese government, the full-course meal is served to elementary and junior high school students.
Japanese school lunches, which are called kyushoku (給食), are part of Japan’s effort to teach proper nutrition to the young ones. And while the students aren’t involved in the cooking process most of the time, assigned groups take turns in serving food to the whole class. Lunch duty may involve bringing the food to the class using a cart and setting up the utensils.
Today, we will explore the anatomy of Japanese school lunches and discover the aspects that make them among the best in the world.
The goal of serving school lunches in Japan is for the children and teens to have a balanced diet and proper nutrition. That’s why a set meal will always have a major carbohydrate food (rice or noodles), protein, vegetables, soup, and milk. These items are carefully considered, ensuring that children are only getting healthy dishes. Also, the portions are just right.
On some occasions, there will be sweets such as fruits and yogurt and perhaps cake during certain special holidays. But generally, Japanese school lunches do not have a lot of processed sugar.
Despite involving a nutritionist who plans the menu and school staff who cook the meals, Japanese school lunches are relatively cheap. This is perhaps why it’s an envied aspect of the school system in Japan.
Schools don’t just serve local cuisines. The menu can be Western or Asian-style.
The caloric content of the set meals at Japanese schools varies per level. It’s around 560 kcal for lower grades, 660 kcal for middle grades, 770 kcal for upper grades, and 850 kcal for junior high.
The meat and vegetable dishes may vary, but if it’s a domestic dish, it almost always comes with miso soup. Since there are so many ways to cook miso soup, students won’t get the same kind most of the time. What’s more, seasonal ingredients will always be used for certain cooking styles.
Some common protein options include grilled fish, karaage, tofu dishes, or teriyaki, which are often accompanied by a serving of rice or noodles. The vegetable dishes are diverse and colorful, featuring seasonal produce such as mixed veggies in sesame dressing, cabbage salad, stir-fried bean sprouts, and many more.
In some rural areas, schools place emphasis on introducing children to local produce and seafood. So they incorporate those ingredients into the meals of the students by cooking dishes that may not necessarily be available in other regions. In Hokkaido, for example, salmon roe (an expensive food item), is often served at the schools on the island. Then in Ehime Prefecture, where the Mandarin orange harvest is abundant, schools serve these fruits as desserts in school lunches.
Nearly all elementary and junior high schools in Japan serve school lunches. The program is highly subsidized by the government so parents only pay about 4000 to 5000 yen per month.
When a student reaches high school, they may bring their own lunch, buy food from the convenience store, or buy it from the school’s store.
Even Americans themselves admit that Japanese school lunch is so much better than an American School lunch. When you look at both side by side, you’ll see that the Japanese school lunch nutritionists carefully planned the meals. To the Japanese, the meals served at school are an opportunity to teach children how to eat right. School lunches in Japan are even considered the “living textbook.”
American school lunches, on the other hand, have faced criticism for their lack of nutritional value and variety. Most of them are dominated by processed foods, high in unhealthy fats, sodium, and added sugars. Common items include pizza, chicken nuggets, french fries, and sugary desserts.
By and large, Japanese school lunches are better as they’re well thought out. From the proteins and the veggies, down to the amount of servings, they’re guaranteed to be healthy and satisfying.
No matter how nutritious Japanese school lunches are, there’s one biggest downside. Every student getting the same set of meals may not seem like a problem at first, but it becomes a significant disadvantage when students have specific dietary requirements. Japanese school lunches are typically designed to provide a balanced diet. However, they may not be suitable for students with allergies, intolerances, or specific dietary restrictions.
Since school lunches are mandatory, it isn't as easy as just bringing their own lunch. Students who have certain dietary restrictions must obtain permission from the school and present the necessary documents.
In other words, they need to see a doctor and have them sign paperwork that proves a child’s dietary restrictions. They need to have yearly blood tests to prove that they’re still having allergic reactions to some foods.
Now, if the student is only allergic to ingredients that aren't being used for school lunches, it wouldn't be a problem. This issue comes when a child has allergies or intolerances to seafood, eggs, and milk.
School lunches can also be a problem for children to belong to a vegan family. Since it’s not medical-related, permission needs to be granted by the Japanese Board of Education.
It is said that Japanese school lunches were first served in 1889 in Yamagata Prefecture's Tsuruoka City (formerly called Tsuruoka-cho). The practice was dedicated to children from poor families.
After the world war, the government reinstated the School Lunch Program Act in 1954. The move improved the quality of dishes and until now, it is a large part of Japanese education.
The Japanese believe that school lunch is part of education. It teaches children which foods are the healthiest for their bodies. The preference for natural local ingredients over fast food items and snacks with processed sugar are just some of the things that make Japanese school lunches top tier.
These meals for students are widely regarded as some of the best in the world due to their focus on proper nutrition, balanced meals, and educational value. These lunches aim to provide children with a well-rounded diet and teach them healthy eating habits from a young age.
But when they're not at school, Japanese students love to eat some modern snacks, and we've got just that for you in our snack box!