What's for Lunch in Japanese Schools?

by Krystina Quintana

What's for Lunch in Japanese Schools?

Unlike lunches in America which are catered to each individual, lunch in Japanese schools is intended to be eaten as a community. Nutritionists craft the meals, which are then cooked in large vats by hired school staff. 

There's another significant difference between lunch in Japanese schools and lunch in American schools: the way this meal is thought about. It's an educational opportunity for children, where adults can teach kids from elementary to high school about proper nutrition. These school lunches are incredibly affordable, as they were initially created as a way to help feel school children who could not afford lunches.

Curious about what's on the menu for Japanese school lunch? Continue reading to learn more.

Lunch in Japanese Schools

Don’t expect to find pizza and pasta for lunch in Japanese schools. Instead, you’ll find well-balanced meals with items from each major food group. You can typically expect to see a serving of rice, soup, salad, meat, or fish on a plate. Nearly every day, lunch is served alongside a bottle of milk. 

Occasionally, students might receive a yogurt drink or coffee milk. While it may seem like the lunches can get boring quickly, the ever-changing and seasonal ingredients help keep each side and main dish unique and tasty daily. The occasional dessert, such as sweet bread or fruit (served a few times per month), also helps keep lunch in Japanese schools exciting.

Typical Japanese School Menu

As mentioned, the school lunch menus consist of items from each major food group. Some foods that may appear in a lunch include grilled fish, fried rice with chopped vegetable bits, miso wakame (seaweed) soup, tofu seaweed soup, and miso soup. Even though soup is served daily, the many broth variations and inclusions ensure lunch never gets boring for the school children. 

Close up shot of Japanese school lunch food.

Each lunch menu item is made with high-quality ingredients, so the kids receive fresh meals. Occasionally, these school lunches have a fun theme for the kids, which may coincide with a holiday. For example, during the Star Festival, children may receive vegetables cut in the shape of stars. 

Goals of Lunchtime in Japanese Schools

In Japan, serving a nutritious school lunch is a top priority, along with proper food education, which includes teaching students about healthy food choices. During lunchtime, students are encouraged to eat everything on their plates. The teachers who preside over the students typically enforce this, as they want the children to taste each food item to become more familiar with a wider array of foods.

How Students are Involved

Another significant difference between lunch in Japanese schools and American schools is student participation. While the students do not help with cooking or meal prep, they are on a rotating lunch duty schedule. Each child (from elementary through junior high school and high school) has to help serve lunches throughout the school year. 

During this process, the students on lunch duty will put on a specific serving outfit (apron, kitchen cap, and mask). Then, they are in charge of gathering the food and eating utensils. The food is placed on large metal carts with wheels alongside the toppings, milk bottles, and sides. 

Each lunch duty student will wheel one cart with everything necessary for lunchtime to homeroom, as Japanese schools do not have a typical cafeteria space. After serving lunch to their classmates, the students on lunch duty announce that lunch is over. At this point, the other students will announce gochisousama deshita, meaning “Thank you for the meal.” Then, the lunch duty students clean up the area and wheel the large metal carts back to the kitchen. 

Being on lunch duty is seen as a job that students are excited about, as serving lunch to others is a job that comes with a lot of pride!

Lunchtime for Japanese Students (Not on Lunch Duty)

Three Japanese high school students eating lunch.

Lunch looks a bit different for those students who are off-lunch duty. While the on-duty lunch team is prepping the metal carts, students in the classroom are prepping the eating area. This prep includes pushing the tables in small groups so students can enjoy lunch together. Additionally, the students will help wipe down the desks and set out personal placemats and napkins brought from home. 

After lunch arrives, students will line up and receive their food one by one. In some schools, the lunch duty students are in charge of reading the menu for the day to the classroom. This menu reading includes the meals' nutritional information. One final step must occur before consuming lunch, everyone saying itadakimasu, meaning “I humbly receive.”

During lunch, the student in charge of the meal will alert the other students to the number of leftovers after everyone has been served. Then, the students can discuss who wants the leftovers or how the leftovers can be split. The on-duty student will help distribute these leftovers. This helps provide one final lesson for the children, who are expected to eat everything on their plates. 

So, if they ask for leftovers and it is too large of a serving, they will be left feeling overly full for the afternoon. Thus, children learn quickly not to ask for leftovers when they're already feeling satiated. 

How the School Lunch Program Began

The Japanese school lunch program was thought to have been created in the late-1800s in the Yamagata prefecture. At this time, schools that priests led began serving low-income students filling meals that consisted of rice balls, fish, and pickles. 

This positive lunch movement spread quickly, with schools providing this service to students nationwide. Through the years, lunches have changed to include a more diverse menu offering. Plus, school lunches are now offered to all students (and teachers) instead of only those who need financial help.

Creating Japanese-style Lunches at Home

You can easily recreate these meals at home for yourself or your kids. Step one is finding the perfect containers and cups for your Japanese meals. That way, you can easily pack a Japanese bento box-style lunch. Then, balance the meal with protein, salad, and an array of the best Japanese snacks (including a few Japanese treats). 

If you’re low on time, you can even pack a cup of instant noodles, like the Yamadai Sugomen: Kyoto Seabura Soy Sauce Ramen (1 Cup). These instant noodles come packed with flavor and even include dried vegetables. You can even add themes as they feature during lunch in Japanese schools. For example, you can craft a meal using the Seescore Sakura Rice + Sakura Salt Set in the springtime as a nod to the Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival.