Lunch in a Japanese primary/elementary school:...

Image by Currawong1 via Flickr

Though the lunch menu indicated that the day’s meal was called “Mix It Up Day”, I was not sure what was actually getting mixed up. To me, it looked like the same mess as usual, except that pizza was not the main entree. I am usually in the schools on Fridays which is always Pizza Day, unless it is Pizza Bagel Day. But, today was a Wednesday.

On my information gathering excursions into the school lunch rooms, I always have to smile broadly and express benign interest as I approach the women serving on the line.

For “Mix It Up Day”, the main dish was served in individual black styrofoam containers covered in patterned cellophane wrap–shipped in from a centralized district kitchen. I could not identify the contents. “Good afternoon. What’s for lunch today?”,  I politely asked the lunch lady who was placing the black styrofoam containers on the white styrofoam trays that the children clutched as they moved down the line. “Chicken and cheese”, was the response. I tried another gentle inquiry, but realized I would have to figure it out on my own.

Another lunch lady was ably in charge of serving the two additional meal components–puce green overcooked broccoli mush and applesauce. With a metal measuring cup in each hand, she plopped the oozing applesauce into the bare compartments of the children’s trays while the broccoli sat idly by. Considered an optional component, it was not even offered. I later saw only one child with the broccoli on her tray. Reminiscent of poor Oliver’s experience in the orphanage in Dicken’s England, I wondered could there not even be a small effort towards more attractive food preparation and presentation.

Still needing to discover what that main course even consisted of, I strolled among the children who were already seated to eat. I found them contending with a dinner roll, two or three battered half dollar-sized circles which I think was the chicken, and three battered mozzarella cheese sticks. While circling, I also surveyed the number of chocolate v. white milk containers; the contents of the lunches brought from home; what was actually being consumed; and, anything else that might edify my knowledge base of what kids are eating in school. Finding it all less than appetizing, I maturely suppressed my prone-to-gagging inner child and returned to my office.

Later, I headed home, still digesting the day’s school lunch experience. The car radio was on, broadcasting more news about the unfolding tragic events occurring in Japan in the wake of the earthquake in Fukishima. Suddenly, the name Mix It Up Day, took on a new ironic meaning. I began to think of all the children who would not be having school lunch there on this crazy day or for many days to come.

Remembering that a few months ago I had received an email describing school lunches around the globe, I felt certain that Japan must have been one of the countries chosen to highlight. This country of such rich food culture and ritual, could surely vindicate the belief widely held here that we must serve kids low quality food because that is what they will eat. I arrived home and found what I was looking for.

According to information provided by and, school lunch in Japanese is called kyuushoku. The lunches are all prepared in the schools, often by mothers of  students who serve in this role on a part-time basis. The meals are eaten in the classroom with the teacher, and parents–who contribute to the cost of the school lunch program–are invited in throughout the year. The children, clad in clean aprons, rotate the job of serving the food and no one can start eating until all have received their share. This is in sharp contrast to the chaotic, cacophonous “cafeteriums”  that define school lunch programs here. Recently, I had asked a young girl what she thought about my coming to eat in the cafeteria with her. She replied that I would get a headache.

Commonly in Japan, local foods are sourced with regional pride, children grow and harvest some vegetables that are used by the school, and everyone receives a printed menu that tells what food groups are provided by the meal. Typically provided foods include rice, rice noodles, miso soup with tofu, grilled fish, seafood stir fry, potato croquettes (korokke), stuffed omelette (omurice), daikon radish, sweet yams, bread and milk. Forty-five minutes are allotted for lunch time which is followed by recess.

In that topsy-turvy tsunami-ravaged part of Japan, in this dark hour, lunch time is really mixed up for millions of Japanese school children. As we pray that all their bellies be full of even just some warm rice or noodles, let us honor and carry the intention and care that defines how that country tends to the feeding and nourishment of their young to our own children here. It would serve us all well.

Thank you for reading. Any school lunch experiences to share?

In Health, Elyn

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8 thoughts on “kyuushoku

  1. Great post. Why do we think our children will only eat stuff that is breaded and fried? Why do we tolerate, and even seek out, such noise levels in our school cafeterias, diners and fine resaurants alike? And why do veggies have to be so badly overcooked? No wonder we can’t get kids to eat them.


  2. We didn’t need photos, you described the “smorgasbord” beautifully. No wonder the kids are either wound up like Jack in the Boxes or falling asleep in class. We get out what we put in don’t we…


    • marie, thanks for your comment. unfortunately what you say is very true. thankfully there are some school food reform movements happening, but they come very late and at this point they need to try and fight very hard just to make small changes.


  3. Elyn –

    I’d like it if you signed your posts.

    I have a friend who used to (or may still) manage a public school cafeteria. Please let me know if you’d like to talk with her.

    – Dave


    • hi david, that is an interesting and helpful comment. why do you think it would be good for me to sign my posts? more personal?

      thanks for the offer on your friend buti do keep an eye on school lunch initiatives.



  4. It is easy to forget what an unappetizing scene most children face on a daily basis. yuck! of course they will pick pizza – at least it is vaguely recognizable. and yes, the noise – the headache. This is how we create an atmosphere of health and well being!!??


  5. It appears that other countries are so ahead of us on the practice of providing healthy and appealing school lunches, particularly France, Italy, and Japan. I analyzed my local school breakfast and lunch menus and of course found the typical pizza, breaded chicken creations, hot dogs, burritos, etc. etc. I analyzed three days of menus and found the overall menu to be higher in saturated fat, sodium, and carbohydrates than they (school) stated in their analysis. The breakfasts were loaded with carbohydrate with a choice of cereal (whole grain, at least), biscuits, pancakes, bagels, muffins, and something called “Good Gravy Pizza”.
    I found a positive article by Mark Bittman- New York Times Opinionator, March 22, 2011 entitled “Food: Six Things to Feel Good About.” School lunch is one of them – there are some good things going on out there. Let’s hope it catches on and continues.


    • thank you for this response. i too see the carb with carb breakfast meals that are served. the schools i am at seem to rely on individual serving containers of the high sugared cereals that are reformulated with the whole grains and some reduced sugar…like sugar frosted flakes. and then serving that with some bready item. i have seen the menus promoting that they use 100% whole wheat products while that is not the case. last week, i saw that no fruit was provided at the lunch. they were substituting a carton of apple juice or orange juice instead. yes, thankfully pockets of change are happening but we are still a culture that does not really get the concept of food for emotional and physical health as other countries do.


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