Japanese school food

When we went back to the U.S., one of the things that we experienced culture shock over was the food. Home, school, and institutional cooking is so very different here – it's also pretty different from the stereotypical Japanese dishes you get in Japanese restaurants in the U.S.

Here's the menu for my kids' public school lunch here in Japan over the next few days:

Vegetable fried rice, tofu and kinoko mushroom soup, spicy bean sprouts

Chilled udon with tofu, soy bean and sweet potato fritters, fruit with rice flour dumplings

Bibimbap (a Korean dish – rice with mixed vegetables and an egg), tofu and wakame soup, a plum

Somen noodles with chicken croquettes, chilled boiled komatsuna (a leafy green vegetable similar to spinach), corn, and "Tanabata" gelatin (made special for the Tanabata holiday coming up).

Yukari rice (yukari is a Japanese herb like sesame leaves or basil), whiting fish in a miso/mayo glaze, vegetables in sesame dressing, miso soup

French garlic bread, minestrone soup, cabbage and corn salad

Barley rice with yukari pickles, gingery pork saute, daikon and wakame miso soup

Rice, edamame, mackerel croquettes with grated daikon and soy sauce, clear soup, braised cabbage

Summer vegetable curry, daikon salad, and homemade peach sorbet.

Note that 1) dessert is a rarity (usually it's a small portion of fresh fruit if anything), 2) the food is heavy on grains and vegetables with only small portions of protein, such as small fish (low on the food chain) or side-dish-sized portions of meat, 3) they strive to introduce children to a variety of cuisines (though rice, and Asian flavors, do predominate, and 4) everything is made fresh. The fully-functioning kitchen is on the first floor of the school and our children personally all know the people who make their food. 

Dining etiquette is a pretty big thing here too. The children take turns serving each other in their classroom and then all sit down at tables in their classroom and wait until everyone is seated to begin. I like that the children are taught to sit down to appreciate their meal instead of eating it on the run. They bring their own placemats. They're expected not to waste food, but to eat everything on their plates. Pickiness is strongly discouraged. Everyone cleans up afterwards together – clearing plates, wiping tables, bringing dishes back tthe kitchen, cleaning the floors. Despite how one might feel about some of the etiquette taught in schools – I'm not in favor of every aspect of it and some of it might be considered downright rigid –  at the very least, it's been a chance for our kids to learn that foods – and not just food, but food customs and food culture – are different all around the world. And, sad to say, they've noticed a few things about food culture back home – such as the preponderance of kids' meals and the generally unhealthy offerings for school lunch. (Although I just found a great Facebook page about school lunches done right: School Meals that Rock).

We've never been able to live somewhere where we could cultivate a garden, so I've been happy that here, in most nursery and elementary schools, children grow and harvest vegetables – D brought us baby eggplant a few days in a row and proudly cut it up and served it, and when daikon was in season he brought baby daikon for us to sample.

My kids also gained confidence cutting up vegetables in nursery school – there's a yearly event at which the oldest kids in the school prepare curry lunch for themselves and their parents. 

It's not just in schools that you get freshly prepared food. When I had my fourth baby here – my first time giving birth in a hospital – I was nervous about having to rely on someone else for food but frankly, it was a lot tastier than what I could have managed for myself! Look at these photos:

 IMG_0368Okay, the green beans in the first photo look terribly overcooked, but everything else was fresh. 

And a final photo here is M eating the Japanese version of fast food at a food court in a mall – simple udon noodles.IMG_0705

No place is perfect, and certainly it's not like that here either. We got into a white bread habit that we can't seem to shake (white bread, or "shokupan," is the most commonly found bread around, and white rice and white noodles, as you can see above, are also pretty standard fare). French pastries are hugely popular, as are convenience store treats like Pocky, and of course there are still plenty of other unhealthy options. There's less acceptance of different ways of eating or things like food allergies and intolerances (though awareness of that is growing). And fast food restaurants do abound (the same food court where M ate those noodles has a McDonalds and Mister Donut too). There are some food "rules" I still don't understand, like the disdain for raw produce (considered too cooling for the body), but overall I feel like living here has helped influence us for the better in many ways when it comes to our eating habits and food awareness.

So to sum up, some key values are:

the importance of eating together, sitting down and appreciating your meal.

shopping daily or frequently for fresh ingredients, in small amounts, and less reliance on processed foods. Protein is served in small portions; vegetables predominate.

serving snacks and sweets in very small portions. Traditional sweets rely on sweetened bean paste or rice although there are modern, sugar-laden treats as well.

I'm excited that there's a food revolution brewing in the US – it's so long overdue. In addition to checking out School Meals that Rock, take a look at these two blogs – their commentary on current kid/food matters always inspires and informs: LettuceEatKale: Musings on Food, Family, Friends, and Growing Greens and SpoonFed: Raising Kids to Think About the Food They Eat.

What's the food culture like around you? If you have children who go to school, what's the school food like? What do you like and what (if anything) do you wish you could change, and what do you do to encourage your kids to eat healthfully?


21 thoughts on “Japanese school food

  1. Frugal Kiwi

    I don’t have kids myself, but I have been subjected to hospital food in the US and New Zealand. Food in both was not only disgusting to eat, it was down right unhealthy. I shuddered to think of being stuck eating the provided food with no one to bring me anything else. Terrible.
    The pictures you showed of what you had in hospital in Japan looks down right tasty. And healthy. What a difference!

  2. Jennifer Margulis

    Wow. I’m so jealous of what your children are eating in school. It’s so amazing and impressive. The American school child’s diet is disgusting, not to mince words about it. Really and truly disgusting. And when parents are asked to bring snacks, they bring food that is full of sugar and additives. In Japan it looks like your kids are eating real food. I’m so jealous!

  3. Christina @ Spoonfed

    What a school menu! I love not only the freshness, but also the variety. Despite the wonderful meals shown on the “School Meals that Rock” Facebook page, that is far from the norm here in the U.S. And while I applaud all the great things happening in individual schools here, the only way anything will change on a large scale is if policy changes. Thankfully we have momentum on this issue like never before, so, despite the fact that we have a long way to go, I’m cautiously optimistic.
    Personally, my daughter attends a small private school where all the kids bring their own snacks and lunches. But even if she didn’t, we’d be packing our own food anyway. Like I said: There’s still a long way to go. Sigh.
    Thanks for the great post, Christine. (And thanks also for mentioning my blog!)

  4. Kris

    It’s so enlightening to see how other cultures incorporate healthy eating into their diet. Good food is so important for kids, and I’m happy to see that in the past year there has been more attention to this via blogs like yours and those you mentioned, as well as dear Jamie Oliver. Have you read the blog by the American teacher in Japan, who discusses this? http://www.mrfergusonsclassroom.com/

  5. Christine - Origami Mommy

    Yes, variety is a nice plus if you’re trying to raise adventurous eaters.
    I’m glad to hear you are cautiously optimistic about the future of school food! Like you, our children go to a school in the U.S. where all the kids bring their own packed lunch, but they see what’s in the wider culture (or in their classmates’ lunches). I feel strongly about school food because I want all children to have a chance to eat healthily!

  6. Alexandra

    Thanks for sharing this experience in Japan.
    My kids grew up in France, where fresh food is a given and everyone still shops on at the farmers’ market. Those markets are what I really miss.
    McDonalds did not impose fast food about 1995, the same moment the slow food movement took off in France. When my kids were growing up, there was a popular song that went, “Je prefere manger a la cantine. Avec les copins et les copines.” (Translation: I prefer to eat at the school cafeteria with all my friends.)
    I’m glad to read about rumblings on the school cafeteria food front here and hope they rise to a roar.

  7. Susan

    Lots of tofu and veggies – I wholeheartedly approve! I’m surprised to hear about the disdain for raw vegetables, though. I guess I shouldn’t be, since most of my exposure to Asian cuisine has featured cooked veggies.

  8. sarah henry

    Thanks so much for the insider insights, Christine. It’s fascinating to see what’s on the menu for school lunch in Japan — and in hospitals as well.
    I’m struck, too, how the simple presentation makes the food look so inviting, don’t you think?
    Sweet of you to mention my school food coverage at Lettuce Eat Kale, much appreciated.
    And, I know I note this almost every time, but I love your photos!

  9. Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart

    We were talking about this at dinner last night. I brought my lunch for most of my school years, and not that all those PBJs were the most nutritious, but at least it wasn’t the kind of junk they sell in school cafeterias these days.

  10. Sheryl

    This is truly amazing. Not only from the healthy food perspective but from the idea that everyone helps and cooperates and the children learn manners, too. This will set them up for life. I wish, I wish, I wish that my kids had these advantages when they went to public school here in the U.S. Sure, we can teach them at home, but school only helps to reinforce what they can learn (or choose to ignore) at home. Great post!~

  11. Almost Slowfood

    I have to second Jennifer’s jealousy. Baby girl just started at an amazing and wonderful nursery school. Only problem is they serve juice and refined carbs for snack every day. I can’t very well be the only parent who says now way so I’m grinning and bearing it for now, but am hoping to encourage the teachers to utilize the amazing farmer’s market around the corner!

  12. Christine - Origami Mommy

    I’d love to hear more about what they ate for school lunch in France! I know that in Japan there is pride in school lunch and that to some it’s almost a cultural institution – I’ve run into many adults who have fond memories of it.

  13. Christine - Origami Mommy

    This reminds me of when B (my first child) was in nursery school – we were still living in the U.S. The school had a healthy snack rule and parents took turns bringing it in, so when it was my turn, I made smoothies – just fruit and plain yogurt. Only two kids ate it – my son and another child. The teacher said, “Oh, you didn’t put sugar in it – that’s why.” I hope you’re able to make some positive changes in your own classroom! Snack is another thing I didn’t mention – for better or for worse, snack isn’t a part of the school day here at all, even in nursery school.

  14. Christina @ Spoonfed

    Hi, Almost Slowfood. Just wanted to mention something about nursery school. When my daughter was in preschool, we WERE the only parents who said no way. And you know what? Not only did our daughter do just fine bringing her own food, but we started seeing positive changes in school-provided snacks as well.
    I think the key was that we weren’t obnoxious or judgmental about it. We just said that we preferred to provide our own snack and have our daughter drink only the water (which, thankfully, was always offered in addition to juice). We’re vegetarian, so I was able to hang some of it on that. But, really, the teachers knew my food views and respected them. I also had a heart-to-heart with the school director and offered some ideas for better snacks schoolwide. And over the two years we were there, we definitely saw changes. Interestingly, we also noticed that often the other kids wanted what our daughter had…
    So, if you feel strongly about the food at nursery school, I wouldn’t hesitate to provide your own. Initially we worried that our daughter would feel stigmatized. But in fact we think it helped her feel comfortable with the idea that sometimes different people eat different things, and that if you feel something is important, it’s OK to go against the grain. And, as I mentioned, it helped drive larger change, too.

  15. Melanie Haiken

    My daughters went to Japan this spring with their dads and came home with these cute little “bento box” style lunch boxes they bought in a market. They were all inspired to pack healthy lunches because they had these cute compartments to put things in!

  16. Michele

    Christine, that’s so interesting–the pros and the cons! I would very happily eat your kids’ school lunch menu myself.
    There are some similarities here in Finland. Every child is served a free, nutritious lunch that’s made in the school kitchen, which means that bringing a packed lunch is unheard of. This is part of the egalitarianism that I appreciate here–no child can’t afford a lunch, or ends up with something terribly unhealthy packed by a negligent parent. The staples are rye bread, potatoes, and salad with a changing entree.
    Food culture is changing here too as people become more interested in seasonal, local fare. At least in Helsinki there’s now a drive to emphasize local foods in school lunches.

  17. Meredith

    This is so interesting. I think you might have a book in you about this very topic. Completely different than the fare my kids found in the cafeteria in public schools here in so cal. But when they were in Russia the food they ate in institutions was, they tell me, more wholesome – and whole.


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