In Japan, schools typically begin around 8 in the morning and ends around 4 in the afternoon. After 4 classes, most students look forward to lunch time to recharge their energy so they can fight through two more periods before going home. Most public schools in Japan have school lunches provided, and while some students find them delicious and some don’t, it definitely takes a big burden off the parents from having to pack lunch for every tomorrow. Today, allow me to give you some insights to the food served in school.
As all the set meals you would find in Japan, each lunch set is composed by several dishes: carbohydrates, main dish, soup, vegetables, milk, and occasionally dessert. The menu is designed by the school district’s head nutritionists, and each school also has an in-school nutritionist in charge of balancing, ordering and budgeting food and ingredients. The main points are to keep the food healthy and the cost low, while students can also learn the importance of a balance diet. Every day, fresh ingredients are delivered to each school to be prepared by the school cooks so the meals will be ready by noon. For approximately 250yen per meal, there is little to complain about.
Let’s take a closer look at the food. The carbohydrates are often white rice, as it is the main food consumed in Japan. But eating rice every lunch gets boring (for me, anyway), so alternatively, bread and noodles are also on the menu. The main dish matches the carbs of the day. Grilled fish is always served with rice, omelette goes with bread, to list a couple of examples.
Kids tend to dislike vegetables, so the nutritionist implemented various techniques to “trick” the students into eating the food they don’t like. Mixing the green peas with chicken and cooked in a tomato sauce; chopping up carrots and mushrooms and adding them into curry; adding clams (which many kids hate too) into the chowder soup; serving boiled cabbage (my personal nightmare) with a piece of fried ham and two slices of bread so the students can make a sandwich. The students might still hate it by the end of the day, but at least the students would have consumed the vegetables in a way they find more acceptable.
Speaking of food the students dislike, the soup served is often miso soup or a light broth with various chopped vegetables and tofu. They are almost never exciting, but they help washing down the food you despise of. A pack of 200mL milk is served with every meal to provide calcium and another way to drain food down. However, if you hate milk… good luck.
Depending on the districts, but some schools freshen things up by providing new flavours to the menu. Themed meal sets allow students to try out different cuisines: The Local Food Sets where everything is grown in the city; The Food Trip Sets for students to try out other local tastes in different parts of Japan; The International Cuisine Sets bringing in tastes from various countries. There are also slight changes to celebrate special occasions, such as a star shape jelly for Nanabata or ebifry and fishcake for Girl’s Day.
My students right now don’t think too highly of the school lunches especially when compared to the more delicious options they could eat from restaurants. But whenever I mention school lunches to people who have left the school lunch system for years, they always find it nostalgic just from talking about it. Perhaps it is not just the food menu, but how the food is served by the students together and everyone eats the same food as a class that make school lunch such a special collective memory. Personally, it is a “Japanese taste” that I am grateful to enjoy almost every day.