In Japanese Schools, Lunch Is As Much About Learning As It’s About Eating

I grew up in the United States, and we Americans don’t, in the main, look back on our school days with particularly fond memories of lunch. Some schools do a superb job of serving up delicious and nutritious meals. Others can barely get their act together to reheat yesterday’s chicken fingers, and, as with much else in America, it all averages out to a frustrating mediocrity. These days, the culinary standards of American school lunches often come in for punishing comparisons in the media to those of other societies, especially France, which has long held up eating well as one of its highest priorities, and Japan, known for its attention to detail as well as the health of its people.



Just have a look at the nine-minute documentary above on one lunch period at an elementary school in Saitama (about fifteen miles outside Tokyo) and you’ll have a vivid sense of the difference — a difference that goes well beyond what gets eaten. At 12:25 in the afternoon, the kids all bow and thank their teacher for the first half of the day’s instruction. Then they put on their caps and smocks and lay their placemats and chopsticks on their desks. A rotating team of students goes to collect everyone’s meals from the kitchen (thanking the lunchladies before wheeling their carts away) while the rest arrange the furniture into the standard lunch formation. Back in the classroom, the students serve each other the day’s fried fish with pear sauce, five-vegetable soup, and mashed potatoes grown on the school’s own farm by students.

But wait, there’s more: the kids all brush their teeth after lunch, then break down their milk cartons, wash them, and set them aside to dry before placing them in the next day’s recycling. The video then shows how, after lunch, they all clean their classroom together. Lunch becomes an opportunity not just to eat healthy food, but to teach students a number of valuable life lessons–good manners, ethics, teamwork and more.

I couldn’t have imagined any of this happening in my own fifth-grade classroom, and if you couldn’t have either, you can read more about how the phenomenon of the Japanese school lunch came to be at Japanese School Lunch, the site of Japan scholar Alexis Agliano Sanborn. She delves into the history, the goals, the mechanics (right down to seasonal menu planning), and the successes of Japan’s school lunch system. “Perhaps no other country in the world can offer school lunch cookbooks, school lunch-themed restaurants or even school lunch-themed paraphernalia,” she writes. Certainly not the one I came from!

(via Twisted Sifter)

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


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  • Faylinn says:

    I think that it is interesting to learn about what other countries, like Japan, have their students eat and compare that to what we eat here in our schools. However, I have to say that we do have to take culture into consideration as well, because I’m not sure that we’d be able to place American students in a Japanese eating environment and have them have the same experience. Personally, I enjoyed eating the square pizzas and burritos that I got in my school growing up. We also didn’t drink milk out of milk cartons, but, instead, plastic bags that you had to poke a straw through and that made recycling

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