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

School lunch in Japan Image by Currawong1 via Flickr

Though the menu indicated that today’s lunch was called “Mix It Up Day”, I was not sure what was getting mixed up. To me, it looked like school lunch as usual, except that pizza was not the main entree. Working with the School-Based Health Program, I am usually in one of three of the district’s elementary schools on Fridays which is always Pizza Day unless it is Pizza Bagel Day. But, today was a Wednesday.

I headed into the lunchroom to see what was being rearranged or diverging from the norm. “Good afternoon. What’s for lunch today?”, I politely asked the lunch lady 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.

Unable to see the contents hidden beneath the patterned cellophane wrap, I tried another gentle inquiry. With no clearer answer, I realized I’d have to figure it out on my own. On my investigational forays into the school lunchrooms, I’ve learned I must always smile broadly, express benign interest and not ask too many questions.

A few steps down, another lunch lady was in charge of two additional meal components–applesauce and puce green overcooked broccoli mush. Using a metal measuring cup she slopped the oozing applesauce into one of the bare compartments on each of the children’s trays. The broccoli mush, considered an optional rather than a required component, just lay in its big tray, ignored. 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.

Continuing my quest to better understand the school lunch scene, and still needing to discover what that main course consisted of, I moved to stroll 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. Only one girl’s tray contained the broccoli mush.

While making my way around and talking with some of these students, I surreptitiously surveyed the number of chocolate v. white milk containers, the contents of the lunches brought from home, what was actually being consumed and the waste filling the garbage cans. Finding the subject matter less than appetizing, I maturely suppressed my prone-to-gagging inner child and focused instead on digesting my observations. I could not discern how this day’s menu was mixed up in any noticeable way from others. Certainly, it was no better.

During my drive home, my attention was grabbed by the news being broadcast about the tragic events unfolding in Japan in the wake of the 9.0 magnitude Fukushima earthquake and resultant tsunami. Suddenly, 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.

Listening to the news, I remembered that I’d recently received an online article describing school lunches around the globe. I felt certain that Japan must have been one of the highlighted countries. This country of such rich food culture and ritual could surely challenge the widely held belief 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.

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. All parents contribute to the cost of the school lunch program and are invited for lunch at times 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 cafeterias or “cafeteriums”  that define school lunch programs in this country. Recently, I had asked a young girl what she thought about my coming to eat with her in the cafeteria. She astutely replied that I would get a headache.

In Japan, local foods are sourced with regional pride, children grow and harvest some of the 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 lunchtime which is followed by recess. Kyuushoku is a well-planned, healthy, and respectful way of feeding the country’s children.

But now, in that topsy-turvy ravaged part of Japan, lunchtime will really be mixed up for millions of Japanese school children in a way more profound than whatever was intended by today’s menu makers. I pray that their bellies be filled with at least some warm rice or noodles. And, I honor the care and intention that defines how Japan tends to the feeding and nourishment of its young. It would serve us well to do the same.

Any school lunch experiences to share?

Thank you for listening, sharing, following and supporting my writing. Please subscribe in the sidebar to receive notice of new posts. Comments and greetings always welcome.

In health, Elyn

Related Posts: A Shmear Campaign, Pop Smarts, The Importance of Teaching Kids About Nutrition

Updates 2020/Related Resources: Kyushoku Confidential; Unpacking Japan’s Healthy School Lunches; Gohan Society – Japanese School Lunch (watch the video)

Related Resources: Blogger Eats 162 School Lunches In One Year; Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act 2015

If you are still considering how to donate to relief efforts, please check out the Save the Children website at (inactive link)

IMG_0061 (1)

Japanese My Plate






My Plate Haiku

Did you really think

That you could hide fish in rice?

Oh, the green paste burns.

by Francesco Marciuliano 

from I Could Pee on This and Other Poems by Cats





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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