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Japanese School Lunches: The Tastiest Lesson

James LauJames Lau
Published TimeMay 01, 2022

Japanese school lunches have recently gained popularity around the world for their varied offerings, but there’s more to them than just delicious portions! Let’s start our quick dive into Japan’s tastiest lesson!

In most Japanese public school systems, elementary and junior high students won’t bring bento lunch boxes from home. Instead, they are provided with kyushoku, or what is commonly referred to as a Japanese school lunch. These lunches are affordable, convenient, and overseen by a nutritionist who carefully ensures that each lunch gives the students a healthy yet delicious meal.

Humble Beginnings

A young girl eats school lunch of bread, salad, and more, spooning something into her mouth, as she sits at a table with other Japanese school lunches sitting on the table
Lunch time isn’t just about the food you eat, it’s often about making friends with the people in your lunch group, which changes often in the school year. Image via Shutterstock

School lunches can be traced back to a private school in Yamagata Prefecture. In 1889, onigiri rice balls, grilled fish, and some Japanese pickles were provided to poorer students who couldn’t afford to bring their own lunch from home to school. Eventually, the practice spread across Japan and the food options expanded to include bread, mochi (Japanese pounded rice cakes), and noodles. However, school lunches came to a halt during World War II.

During the American occupation of Japan, school lunches resumed and were heavily influenced by the American forces. Previously, school lunches had focused on an extreme rice diet but had moved towards increased dairy and bread consumption.

In the 1950s, the Ministry of Education announced that it would stop serving school lunches but thanks to the united forces of PTAs (Parent-Teacher Associations) across Japan, school lunches would be protected under the new “School Lunch Law”. This law promotes the understanding of a healthy diet, food production and distribution, and the food culture of Japan, while enriching school life and cooperation between students.

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We’re All In This Together

School lunch is a team effort in Japan. Some schools might have a kitchen where staff prepare the meals in-house. Other schools may get their meals delivered from a centralized kitchen also known as a kyushoku center. Either way, the ingredients are all locally sourced, and lunches may occasionally feature local staples like certain types of fish or meat. 

Some elementary schools might also go on a field trip to their local kyushoku center to learn about the behind-the-scenes of how their school lunches get made. Some junior high schools might even go directly to the farmers in order to see where their food is grown.

Japanese school lunches are also extraordinarily cheap, costing between ¥250 to ¥400 per meal depending on the school. Each student and their family are also given a pre-decided menu informing them of what school lunches will be served throughout the month.

If you’re wondering if there are ever any repeat meals, don’t worry! A nutritionist is there to ensure that there is a variety of meals being served to the students, but occasionally, students can request that a favorite meal be brought back into the rotation.

Two young Japanese male students laugh and talk as they eat lunches that they brought with them from home in their classroom.
High school students tend to have a different situation with many bringing their own lunch or paying for a lunch set from the school cafeteria instead. Image via Shutterstock

When the lunch bell rings, students assigned to lunch duty (called kyushoku toban) immediately don white aprons to protect their clothes and rush to bring heavy aluminum containers to their classrooms. 

Depending on the size of the school, students might have access to a special elevator only  used for moving school lunches to their appropriate classrooms. In their classroom, a long, low table is set up and soon filled with the aluminum containers. 

Students will work as a team to serve lunch in an efficient manner, self-regulating themselves and making sure that each portion is roughly the same as each container is measured precisely to the student. All students will take part in this lunch duty from the smallest first grader to the biggest sixth grader. The younger grades are overseen by their homeroom teacher who guides them through the process. 

By the time they are sixth graders, they are seasoned pros. Of course, mistakes are still made occasionally, like dropping food or the entire container of a main dish. It is up to the students on lunch duty to clean up and scrounge up enough leftover food from the other classes (and teachers’ room) to ensure that their classmates are fed.  

After saying “Itadakimasu!” students are able to enjoy their food and the company of their friends. Occasionally, a teacher might eat lunch with them, building strong bonds with their students.

And if you’re wondering, yes, the principal eats first! But probably not for the reason you’re thinking of. Principals eat first in order to check the food, making sure that the taste is right and nothing inedible has been served to their students. It’s an old custom that is still in use today!

What’s On The Menu

A table features many Japanese foods used in Japanese school lunches like miso soup, salmon, rice, vegetables and more.
Japanese school lunches are truly diverse, ranging from traditional food like this to less traditional dishes like Hamburg Steak or spaghetti. Image via Shutterstock

School lunches are simple affairs. There is always a carton or glass of milk, which may be served with a special mix that changes it into chocolate or strawberry milk. Trust me, it’s delicious. For carbs, rice is the norm (sometimes with furikake seasoning), but bread, spaghetti, and other noodles are also included.

Of course, protein is also included on the plate with things like karaage (fried chicken thighs), local beef, local fish, or the occasional deep-fried thing. Vegetables are usually sliced thin and easy to eat as well as soup, with miso soup being a favorite. Desserts are seen on special occasions, like cake for Christmas or fruits for a specific fruit season.

Junior high school students are usually served larger portions than their elementary school counterparts. Some public kindergartens might serve school lunches with portion sizes roughly half the size of an elementary school portion (with a half-sized milk carton too).

School lunches also feature cuisines from different areas of the world to promote intercultural awareness among the students, as well as different areas of Japan to instill pride in their national food culture.

Of course, students are bound to have their favorite meals like karaage, Japanese curry rice, and spaghetti. But no matter what, each meal is guaranteed to be a delicious experience!

Have you ever had a Japanese school lunch? How was your experience? Let us know in the comments below!

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James Lau

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