Japanese School Lunches: No Mystery Meat Allowed

If you went to public school in America like me, then you probably don’t have very fond memories of school lunches.

Bland chicken-fried steak with overcooked green beans, pizza cut into greasy squares, and tacos of questionable quality filled my childhood years and, in retrospect, I’m not sure how I survived it all.

These kind of school lunches aren’t the norm in other parts of the world, including Japan. In fact, the Japanese school lunch system is renowned the world over.

This past week I saw two articles that caught my eye: one praising Japan’s school lunches, and one about how grossed out some Japanese people are with American school lunches.

What Makes Japanese School Lunches Good?

Japanese school lunches, or kyuushoku (給食) are different from school lunches in other parts of the world.

Lunches are planned by dieticians and are usually made from scratch, using local, unfrozen ingredients. Portions are modestly sized, and the menus are carefully planned throughout the week to emphasize variety and nutrition. Every couple of days, kids might get to try spaghetti or Korean food or something a bit more exotic.

The result? Well, look for yourself:

aomori-school-lunch

Photo by Sudachi

kagawa-school-lunch

tokyo-school-lunch

Photo by Roger Jones

It might not be world-class, gourmet food, but it definitely looks like something I would like to eat. And it’s still lightyears beyond what I was served in school.

Almost all (something like 99%) elementary school kids enjoy these meals, and for only a few hundred Yen.

How do they do it?

Why the Japanese Prioritize School Lunches

Time for some history: after WWII, food was scarce throughout the country, so school lunches were pretty measly. You might get a meal of powdered milk and a few other foods, but nothing very nutritious nor hardy.

But as the Japanese economy began to gain steam and make the country as a whole richer, school lunches grew better and better.

kids-school-lunch

The national government guides the school lunch system with a light touch, relying more on the local schools themselves to create their menus and decide for themselves what they want to eat.

School children serve food and clean up a bit after the meal. Not only does it save a bit of money, but it makes them feel involved in the whole process too.

It’s unfair to heap on so much praise, but it’s hard to think of many downsides to the whole system. The biggest issue with Japanese school lunches that I can think of is the occasional meal with whale meat, but that’s more of a foreigner concern than anything.


What do you think? How do Japanese school lunches compare to what you ate in school? Tell me in the comments!

  • Bifurious

    This is really interesting. In Australia our Schools don’t cook us meals, they sell namebrand packet food but we do not have many Schools that would cook us a meal, especially one that looks as good as these.

  • Lionrence

    In Canada the food served at school cafeterias is also awful, terrible memories. I’m sooooo jealous of this japanese kids.

  • suli

    You’re right. It’s worse that they throw all that (perfectly edible) food away. It’s nothing new that there’s stuff you don’t expect in all that processed junk. Why does nobody care about petroleum in chocolate but everyone freaks out on meat in a meatproduct? *sigh* People are weired.

  • linguarum

    Good point. The culture has a lot to do with it, too. Kids in Japan grow up eating a lot more vegetables, and they’re just not allowed to get away with “I don’t want to.” But that goes into a larger discussion of culture and child discipline. Also interesting to note that most restaurants in America have a separate kids’ menu (usually with stuff like french fries and chicken nuggets). In most restaurants in Japan, kids’ menus are unheard of.

  • Jay Sanders

    Not ashamed at all. Why would I be?? I never said anything about desegregation or made any claim it was bad. Don’t jump to conclusions, that’s called being prejudice. There were a LOT of reasons the population shifted so much then. Doesn’t matter the causes (good, bad, or indifferent), you move people around that much and you’re going to have problems. Just look at rural Japan.

    And my school lunches were of questionable quality before Reagan ever took office.

    This is why I usually avoid blog posts. It takes writing a novel to really say what you want without people misunderstanding.

  • Anon ymous

    I travelled to Japan in school, and I had school lunches at two different school, amazing food, and not expensive. When I compare that to the food I eat here, I wish I could eat Japanese school lunches every day.

  • Jessie

    actually school food in the UK is pretty good now, in my school we have a monthly lunch plan and each day most of us spend £1.80 ($2.79) on our main meal with an option to buy other stuff at break ( recess?). Every day there is a vegetarian and a meat option as well as a cold option. I go to a normal school but I have seen food served in private schools which I will admit is a lot better but with a much bigger price tag, some reaching £7 ($10) a day; basically you get what you pay for. If you really don’t like the food, buy it from the shop down the road.

  • Anonymous

    Oh boy American school lunchs are so disgusting. When I was 10-11ish the school had served the children a batch of rotten chocolate milk. So many kids wound up sick. This was in Portland btw.

  • Eevee

    I have to eat kyushoku everyday as a JET and I literally hate it! It’s huge and the soup tastes almost the same everyday. I go to 5 different schools and there is definitely a varying of quality too. I never used to think of myself as fussy with food until I had to eat lunch here everyday. Also – the kids have to finish everything on their plate so I always feel guilty if I want to leave some of the rice…I’d rather bring my own lunch any day but I already stick out so much as it is being a 5ft 10 white girl in an inaka.

  • Flora

    I think I’ve figured out why American school lunches (in particular) are so terrible – our teachers don’t eat with the kids.

    In a lot of other countries, the teachers are expected to eat alongside the students, and a grown man/woman is not about to eat soggy fries & burnt “pizza” and be expected to finish the workday on that. It’s primarily in those places that the kids get to use real silverware & eat food that’s healthy, let alone edible.

    American teachers always bring their own lunch from home or order out, and usually eat in the classroom or the teacher’s lounge. Solution to the school food problem; make them sit with their students & eat the same food. Better food for the students, better sense of community in the school (and I notice behavior in the cafeteria is better when they know the teacher’s watching).

  • HorrorChan

    Our high school didn’t have a cafeteria. The grade school, which also had middle school students, only had one. It wasn’t too far to walk to other school building. I stopped eating school lunches in high school since I lived across the street from it.

    Sometimes the one of the lunch ladies would bring in a turkey that they shot for Thanksgiving(I think you can tell where I probably live…) or make something from scratch. Having also worked in there most of the food is either canned or frozen. Nothing you couldn’t buy from the grocery store or in bulk.

    We also a had a day where cooks would get to choose the menu. Sometimes the main things were salads, PB&J, with other things but other than that school food really wasn’t that terrible where I lived. It was pretty much just like eating at home most of the time.

  • http://www.tadaimatte.com/ Ashley Haley

    Not until Grade 9? That’s definitely not something Canada-wide, haha. Both of my elementary schools had cafeterias.

  • http://www.tadaimatte.com/ Ashley Haley

    I worked in a Japanese high school, so we had a cafeteria with choices rather than kyuushoku – the food was really quality, though. I ate in the cafeteria all the time and could get things like donburi, tamagodon, curry rice, udon, onigiri, etc. Still miss it!

  • shiro

    Oh heavens, horsemeat is way too much of a luxury to ever show up in a school lunch in either country. Not even kidding. You’ll have to go to an izakaya in Nagano or Kumamoto for that.

  • shiro

    I live in a fairly big city for a JET and the school lunches aren’t fantastic, but the kids like them for the most part. They might complain about a particularly disgusting dish every now and then, but the only kids I see refusing to eat it are the middle school girls who think they’re on a “diet.” Even then they don’t throw it out, they give it to the baseball boys who have to eat twice their weight in rice to keep up with their after school clubs.

    Quite a change from your typical American child who will toss their veggies into the trash without a second thought.

  • kokosei

    And all this time, all I thought Japanese students ate was Melon pan.

  • Mei

    I think the most interesting thing about this system is indeed how it engages the students, bonds them by having them clean up after they are done.. It gives out the message of ‘enjoy together but also do the less fun stuff together’ which I think a lot of children lack in school these days. And of course, it teaches the children not to be afraid of food and eating. I remember a lot of kids (mostly girls) skipped their lunches, afraid of getting fat if they ate any of the junk we were offered. You don’t have that kind of problem with a healthy nutritious meal like that (:

  • http://twitter.com/EjiputonoDEARS エジプトのDEARS

    There was no lunch in my school, but the schools that have where I live would never compare to this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/christine.delode Christine Delode

    Hummm..moe or less the same in France but cooked in a total different way :) Met vegetables and fruits no french fries or nuggets!!!

  • http://twitter.com/Kamijou_Toumad Tony

    This sure looks a lot better than my current school lunches… I’m not even freaked out by the occasional whale meat, I’d be happy to try it over some mystery meat Monday.

  • Jinan

    Thankfully my mom packed a healthy lunch for me everyday when I was a kid, so I hardly ever ate school lunches, but I always thought that they looked extremely unappetizing… On the times where I did try them they were always either tasteless, soggy, dry, greasy, or a combination of those… And vegetables were rare (other than those vile canned green beans. Ugh.) And it’s obvious that most of the food was previously frozen- nothing was made in the kitchen, they just reheated food (at least in the school district I was in). It’s a real shame…

  • shintee

    wahaha, this is interesting. didn’t know anything about…what was that word, kyuushoku before!

  • Peace

    I grew up eating school lunch in Japan. Now that I am a teacher in the U.S., it makes me worried to see what the students are eating everyday…. I don’t want my sons to eat their school lunch, so I make “obento” for them everyday. We have to do something about our school lunch here in the U.S. Not only the school lunch does not taste good, but it is NOT healthy for our children.

  • Yuki

    Disqus isn’t letting me use Twitter to sign in… Anyway.

    In elementary school in middle Tennessee (United States), the lunches I had were pretty good, at least the vegetables, anyway. For me, there have always been the occasional “meat should not be this tough or cold” problem, and I never liked the spaghetti, the meatloaf, or the corn nuggets. I always ate my vegetables though.

    In middle school and high school, the quality did seem to go down… Not only that, but (at least in my school) our options got restricted. In sixth grade we could get iced tea, as well as chocolate eclairs and other things that by the next year were for teachers only; we could only drink milk or buy water from a vending machine (and it wasn’t until ninth grade that they removed the carbonated drinks from those vending machines anyway). A lot of kids would throw most of their lunch away, swap with others for the food they did like, get salad from the salad bar instead, or buy a bunch of chips and cookies and eat those instead. Eventually I (and several others) began bringing my own lunch…

  • Tessra

    I volunteer in an Australian High School Canteen where healthy food is made and served. :-)

  • JoshDH0

    In Australia, my primary (elementary/Prep-7) school used to sell food that was quite good at the tuckshop (although at my primary school, the tuckshop had to close down for several years before restarting and only being open on Fridays). They didn’t trust the students so they had thys system where the parent would write down their menu choices on a brown paper bag with money enclosed, and the bag would turn up the next day full of food.

    At my high School (8-12), the tuckshop is open every day, and students get to choose what they buy, but the food is usually made of cheap ingredients (like home brand “cheese”). However, they try to keep it healthy nowadays. I hear that the tuckshop used to be profitable and popular until the state government put in new regulations to combat childhood obesity. Once, a guy I know saw black mould on his chicken wrap (I saw it too). I don’t know why he still ate it.

  • Jon E.

    Yeah, same here. (Eastern U.S) ; Food was absolutely dreadful in elementary school. slightly better in Middle, and then the best it could get while still being completely unhealthy in High School.

  • Jon E.

    It’s so crazy that I just stumbled upon this article here, because my Japanese friend (we live in the U.S) and I JUST – and I mean JUST – had a conversation comparing and contrasting school lunches from Japan and the U.S. We even branched off into a much more frightening and generalized topic of how nutrition is viewed within each country by the majority of the public. I say more frightening because it really makes you realize how unbelievably, utterly disgusting we are as Americans. You could spend an entire twelve hours having a discussion on how much salt we overconsume, and its consequences which we are already seeing. That’s just salt. I haven’t even gotten to the FDA’s approval of a certain amount of drops of blood per gallon of milk, the pesticides we swim in and pretend we have no idea we’re consuming poison, or even the extra hormones we swallow or the artificial colors and preservatives . Oh, look at that, I’m rambling anyway…kinda hard not to once you really wake up with the issue of nutrition in the U.S. :-

    Anyway, thanks for the article!

    P.S: (Site-related question here): Is there a date written on the articles on Tofugu somewhere? I think my eyes are missing it.

  • Ilze Botha

    In my schools we never got lunch like this, not even the “mystery-meat” option :P we had to take our own food to school or buy at the tuck shop at ridiculous prices.

  • dddd

    most of my school lunch is ok except for the hamburgers there gray and it has fat on it

  • demonic-cookie

    At my school the selection is pretty good. I live in a tiny town with about 500 kids in my school. Every day something new is available, I never buy it though because it really LOOKS gross. The chicken nuggets are better than fast food ones. They just put in a sandwich bar. More and more often fruit is served in a little cup as the side, I just had strawberries and cream today. But there’s still so much crap you can buy. If I ran a school food business I wouldn’t put a selection of 10 different kinds of chips and cookies right there for kids to buy.

  • ILuvFood

    OMG! I went to a private Catholic all girls school in the Philippines for 11 years and the cafeteria food was amazing. It’s not like how it is above, where the school has dietitians and plan the food but we had a lot of options to choose from and you just buy what you want. Some examples: different kind of dumplings, porridge, basic sushi (nothing fancy but still good), grilled chicken/porkchop, beef stroganoff, shawarma, local pizza and pizza hut pizza (which was pretty good), pesto/white sauce/red sauce pasta, hotdogs in a bun but with like chili and cheese and stuff, Filipino food, and then some more dishes paired with rice. We had a lot of fruit selection and vegetables too.

    And then I moved to America to finish high school. I was sorely disappointed with the food that I packed my own lunch. The pizza or the fries or the pasta just wasn’t as good as the ones I used to have. I couldn’t understand why, if I was willing to pay for my own lunch, would we not have better options :| Sigh but I am well out of school now, although I still miss the food from my old school even until now. I’d love to eat the Japanese school lunches, they look yummy.