School Lunches: What the World Needs to Learn from Japan

Learning about Japan’s School Lunch Program

The Typical Lunch Set

Japanese meals, especially those being served as school lunches, is largely comprised of a specific set of food items that will not only maintain a person’s health but also provide nutrition and vitamins. The first of this is would be their protein source. Japanese meals are made up of more of fish than any other kinds of meat. If they do include meat in their meals, they often stay away from red meat. This may be due to the belief that excessive consumption of red meat can bring in excessive amounts of fat to the body. Sometimes, instead of serving fish, they serve soy products like tofu. They prefer this because it can provide for them the right amount of protein without the saturated fat.

A typical Japanese meal also does not miss a bowl of rice, just like most Asian diets do. It is served at almost any meal at any time of the day. If they don’t serve rice with the meals, they can also serve noodles like soba and udon. This provides enough energy and the right amount of sugar for the body, thus energizing young kids for their daily activities.

The next important thing about a Japanese meal is the fact that they usually serve greens, vegetables, and clear soups for almost every meal. This provides a good amount of fiber for digestion. It also provides a good amount of nutrients and vitamins like Vitamin C. For the drink or the dessert, school lunches are often served with milk, juice or yogurt. Sometimes, the children are served with a bowl of fruit or a small cup of fruity yogurt. It is colorful and enjoyable for the children.

Health Considerations

The Japanese diet is quite popular not only for its unique oriental flavors but for being healthy and wholesome. Japanese meals are considered to be the healthiest in the world, providing the proper balance with enough nutrients, vitamins, and minimal toxins.

It is noticeable that Japanese meals usually have a little bit of everything. They have greens, fruits, dairy, protein, and grains. Another important health consideration for Japanese meals, especially school lunches, is the fact that they must be properly proportioned. A small portion size that will provide the perfect amount of calories for a developing mind and body. The small portioned meal should be enough to provide the child some protein, energy, and vitamin c.

It is noticeable that Japanese children do not suffer from childhood obesity and this is largely an effect of their healthy and balanced diet. It is also important for the Japanese to serve fresh ingredients and avoid preservatives in their food. They prefer organic ingredients which are all locally grown and do not contain any genetic modifications.

What school lunches in Japan considered is the fact that fried food and other food with preservatives is one of the root causes of obesity in children. Children who are served simple meals like this are much healthier than those who eat pizza, hot dogs, and other preserved goods.

Among the primary goals of providing healthy school lunches is the fact that they must keep the children away from illnesses. It is also their goal to reduce the risks of diseases usually experienced at a much older age. It is also the goal of the government to minimize the statistics of childhood obesity in Japan.

By Jim Epler from San Diego, USA (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Japan School lunch Cost

One of the primary goals of the Japanese school lunch program is to provide meals for students which are not only healthy but also affordable. Usually, a typical Japanese lunch costs less than 300 yen and are paid for by the parents. The good thing about this is the fact that Japanese school lunches are a shared responsibility between the government and the parents. The parents are supposed to pay for the actual costs of the ingredients while the government shall take care of the personnel and other expenses.

The Japanese school lunch program is so important for the Japanese government that there are committees responsible for overseeing this. Their goal is to determine the standard nutritional intake of a child. It is also their responsibility to enforce regulations regarding the standards for health and economy of the meals. Also, it is their role to oversee whether or not schools within their communities follow the lunch meal program.

The Correlation between food and education in Japan

Lunchtime, Self-Sufficiency and the value of hard work

What is interesting about the Japnese school lunch program is the fact that it does not only focus on providing healthy food for the children. It cannot be considered as a ‘break’ from learning, instead, the Japanese lunch system is a part of it. They use school lunches as an avenue for learning, instilling good habits, and introducing culture to young children.

It is also among its goals to instill the value of hard work to these young children. In most Japanese schools, even private schools, there are no Janitors and very minimal number of personnel. Because of this, children as young as elementary are tasked to help out during meal times. They can help in both cooking and distribution of meals.

For instance, one group is responsible for asking their classmates to sit, another group is tasked to plate the meal, another group is tasked to distribute, and a group is tasked to clean up. These groupings can rotate roles. This, based on studies, help impose and reinforce the concept and culture of self-sufficiency. These young children will appreciate the value of hard work and the importance of not relying too much on other people in picking up after themselves.

Another concept the Japanese government wants to teach their children is the importance of having healthy eating habits. If there is no junk introduced in school then the children will not see any importance or value to junk. They could learn to prefer food similar to those served to them in school than yearn for something else. On top of that, the children enjoy serving one another. It gives them more appreciation for the meal because it can be considered as an achievement or accomplishment for them. It gives them a sense of fulfillment.

By Gunawan Kartapranata [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], from Wikimedia Commons

Taken from home: Japan School Lunch Box

Japan School Lunch Video DIY Bento (cute lunch boxes)

Although taking home-packed school lunches are discouraged in some Japanese schools, there are special occasions where bringing in a bento is allowed. It could be for food to share or a school event is being held and cooking meals cannot be accommodated in school. There are a number of videos and guides online that will help parents prepare their own lunch bento for their children.

Ultimately, whatever the arrangement, style, or container the bento has, the content of the bento is always most important. One of the important rules to remember is the fact that bentos are single-portioned. It is also typical to see bentos with fish or meat, vegetables, pickled vegetables (side dish), rice (or noodles).

An important rule in making bento is ensuring that the food does not easily spoil. It is more common to use picked side dishes than freshly cooked ones. It is also important to note that dry and wet food shall be separated to preserve the texture of the dry food (crunchiness, and the like). This is why it is important to put them in separate containers or to put it in a partitioned lunch box. There are special containers which are partitioned which can be used for traditional bento.

What is fun about this is that parents can be creative and enjoy making homemade meals for their children, at the same time letting their kids enjoy the food. This is through kyaraben, which is a special arrangement technique for bento. Usual examples of Kyaraben would be imitating popular characters from manga, anime, or video games. Sometimes, the food is decorated with flowers, plants, or even monuments. There are even bento arrangement competitions available in Japan. / Korean Culture and Information Service (Photographer name) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Typical Japan School Lunch menu

There is no specific lunch menu when serving food for lunch in Japan. However, it is a basic rule to follow that every meal shall have a protein source, carbs, milk, and vegetables. Protein source could be chicken, pork, beef, tofu, or fish. Then, vegetables can either be blanched or boiled. Curry and stew are very common delicacies when serving school lunches. At times they serve food that is locally available, especially from provinces (or even city districts like Umejima). The primary goal is to provide a well-balanced meal. An example of a menu would be:

·         Miso soup, rice, stir-fried pork and vegetables, milk

·         Vegetable salad, tofu, and stew, rice, apple, milk

·         Seaweed soup, egg, fish, lemon yogurt, milk

·         Rice, stir fry tofu, tofu soup, peeled orange, milk

Japan School Lunch Facts and Trivia

·         Milk is a definite staple. It is served with every school lunch in every school in Japan. If the particular school does not have a lunch program, they still provide milk jugs during lunch break.

·         Japanese schools often don’t have cafeterias. For most Japanese schools, lunchtime is taken just as seriously as any subject. The food is prepped, distributed and eaten inside their classroom.

·         The Japanese school lunch program discourages home-packed lunches. This is to ensure that each child gets the same kind and amount of food while ensuring their health at the same time. Thus, there will be no jealousy over school lunches. They realized it is much more difficult to control the intake of junk at home than in school.

·         The goal is to provide a calorie intake of about a minimum of 650 to a maximum of 850 for every meal. This is quite flexible, however, especially during certain times of the year like holidays and events.

·         School lunches are served not only with the local delicacies. Sometimes, other oriental food like Chinese and Korean are served. There are also cases where South East Asian and Central Asian influences are evident. There are days also where they serve Italian, American, and even French cuisines.

·         All food is served to children equally. The only exception is if the child has allergies or has a prescribed meal requirement certified by a doctor.

Government and Legislation

Japan school lunch law (Japan School Lunch Act)

It was in 1954 when the School Lunch Act was implemented by the Japanese government. Its goal was to provide aid for young children who are victims of the Second World War. Post-war Japan was not impressive and many people suffered financially, finding it difficult to make ends meet as a result of the bloody war. It was also implemented so that healthy mind and bodies could be promoted accordingly.

Since the implementation of the Japan School Lunch Act has significantly made a positive impact on the health of Japan’s youth. On top of that, the number of students skipping meals before going to school has rapidly declined. Furthermore, many people believe that instilling the importance of a healthy balanced meal in young children has shielded them away from illness and has greatly improved life, in general.

School Lunches Around the World

Japan School Lunch Vs. America

Many people say that the West is home to the largest occurrence percentage of obesity in the world and this is due (in part) to the lack of care and regulation in school lunches for young children. Young kids get obese because they have access to food which should be consumed in regulation. Also, they have very little education about eating healthy because it is not usually taught in school.

However, believe it or not, the United States has their own National School Lunch Act. The goal of the program is to provide low-cost (if not free) school lunch meals as a subsidy of the government for children in public schools. Although the enforcement of the National School Lunch Act is not as strict as that of Japan, there is still health considerations and behavior related goals in the program.