Chew on this, America! School lunch in Japan

By Dan Moeller

So, yes, I live in Japan, and I’m approaching my second-year term, but in no way do I feel myself shifting to the dark-side-ex-pat status. No, no, that’s three or four years down the road. Nor am I of the mind frame that Japan is better than America (U.S. is number one!). With that being said, I believe Japan has a few tricks up its sleeve… a few idiosyncrasies America should be taking notes on.

While the Japanese lack in the areas of individuality, confidence, sandwiches, hoagies, pizza, Mexican food, large scary bugs, sweet candy, militaristic rigidity, bureaucracy, English pronunciation, English grammar on T-shirts, house insulation, the consumption of whales/dolphins, and a general distinction between mature adulthood and cartoon characters…

…it compensates in the areas of comedy, hospitality, general health, low obesity rates, sanitary toilets, socially condoned drunkenness, legal public consumption of alcohol, literacy, reading/book sales, a public sense of tourism, peanut cream, Indian cuisine, horse/chicken/crab/whale sushi and sashimi, mind-boggling animated movies, lush scenery, explosive crop yields, fashion, and the general humbleness that usually goes hand-in-hand with incidents such as Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I guess some of those could really go either way.

This particular scribble is about the “General Health/Low Obesity” aspect of Japan.

(I want to quickly mention that I don’t intend to be on any sort of “high horse” here; I know it’s easy for a skinny person to wax on about health but I must preface this by saying that I simply cannot gain weight. Although this is not as plaguing a problem as obesity, it’s not exactly a walk in the park considering I’m addicted to sports and athletic activities, have dangerously low body fat and currently live in a country with one of the healthiest, lowest-calorie diets.)

If you’re sitting at home thinking how sick you are of hearing about America’s waistline, you may actually find some cool breezes (in awkward places) in this article. Starting now.

Japan teaches health to its population starting in preschool. Kids are presented with the ingredients of each school meal sorted into carbohydrate, protein or vegetable groups on a large board with colorful food magnets. And guess what, you usually find the vegetable group has the highest content in each meal. And, My! What variety! They’re taught why each dish is healthy. Kids aren’t served hotdogs, mystery meat or chicken nuggets; rather, they’re given small servings of protein and carbs in each little dish.

A normal Japanese school lunch includes vegetables, rice, soup, milk, a small meat or fish portion, and sometimes a piece of fruit (in descending order of quantity). No buffets, no dessert menu.

Here is one of many varieties of school lunches. Milk, rice, fish tempura, a salad with tuna fish and a seaweed and seed salad.

The lunch ladies make everything fresh (nothing frozen) and pull together a school lunch that’s around $2.50 —although I have no experience with the Japanese high schools. Also, kids grow their own vegetables right outside the school while almost all Japanese have a garden (or if pressed for space, at least a few scattered house plants). The idea of nature is linked with their culture.

Now, I don’t think Japan has had this master plan of fresh ingredients from the beginning. I say it’s a happy mistake that Japan doesn’t have the room for massive cow farms (only a few expensive beer-drinking cows in Kobe)… a happy mistake that Japan happens to have a sea or ocean three hours from any place in the country… that Japan has one of the most fertile soils in the world (growing rice with something like 20 times more productivity than most rice growing countries)… that with the endless supply of rice and noodle varieties they have no market for freeze-dried French-fries, etc., ad nauseum.

Another example: my local grocery store plays a horribly catchy song that roughly translates to:

Fish, fish, fish
Well eat fish
And well get smarter

Fish, fish, fish
Well eat fish
And well get stronger

So everyone lets eat fish
The fish are waiting for me

Talk about health education.

Japan is basically a magical dreamland for health activists like Ann Cooper. This hyped-up lunch lady knows her facts and has an agenda: get kids involved in the lunch process. If you don’t have the 20 minutes to watch her TED video, just know she makes some good points about the USDA problems and the dubious food pyramid we currently use… “Go ahead kids, cheese steaks have meat and bread, the two most important food groups. Eat up!” And here’s the the truth.

Dan Buettner, who studies the oldest living people in the world, and is considered a “longevity coach”, has some great insight about the common denominators including but not limited to gardening, portion control and eating plants. He sites Okinawans as one of his long living focus groups. Check out his TED Talk.

I can’t speak for other countries, but I know the problem with America is we consider school lunch to be outside of our control. And, after working in a daycare and a gym program, I know many parents think, “As long as my kid isn’t complaining and isn’t hungry, I’m not worried.” This isn’t the kind of attitude that will help alleviate a diabetes crisis. We’re a bit lazy and our plates are already full with various other priorities. Good thing we have a few rabble-rousing Ann Coopers running around… but I think we might need a few more.

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23 thoughts on “Chew on this, America! School lunch in Japan”

  1. Another thing I really love about school lunch in Japan is the emphasis they place on eating everything on your plate. Can you imagine trying to feed things like mushrooms, cooked cabbage, tomatoes, and squid to kids back home? A lot of elementary school kids here don’t like those things, either, but they eat every bite. It makes me feel so guilty about all the food I threw out when I was in elementary school! I think it might be a tough push to get the same thing going in the States – I can’t imagine most American teachers wanting to eat the same school lunch as their students, for instance, which I think makes a big difference in setting an example for the kids – but I’m sure it could be done.

    P.S. This is slightly off-topic, but you think Japan is ahead in the area of sanitary toilets?? I think the only category in which a squat toilet beats a Western toilet is odor!

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  2. Though the traditional Japanese diet is considered to be healthy, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the Japanese diet nowadays is very healthy. Of course, school lunch in the U.S. has a lot of problems, but it also varies by district and region. Some districts are more healthy than others. However, of the “healthier” (i.e. less packaged food, more fruit/veggies, etc) I would say they are similar to a typical Japanese lunch.

    Examples? While the use of fish and vegetables is healthy and good, the vegetables are not always raw and thus lose a lot of nutrients. (Not in all cases – of course). White rice has little nutrient value, and is similar to white bread used in lunches in the U.S. It’d be much better if Japan decided to use brown rice, as was the custom among the middle and low class traditionally.

    Meats are often and typically deep-fried, like in the photo above.

    Organically grown food is also difficult to find in Japan, as is free-range meats/eggs.

    Finally, the diet is more “westernized” now than in the past, and some of these changes aren’t all good (such as the increased consumption of meat/dairy).

    Yes, there are good things about Japanese school lunches, but I wouldn’t say they are better than U.S. lunches – just different. Both have pros and cons (and as I said, some school districts in the U.S. have healthy meals, while others need work). It’s a generalization to say they are all bad, and that Japanese meals are all good.

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  3. I agree with Ashley: It should be mentioned that this varies a lot by region. School lunches in my area tend to involve the dreaded shokupan or lard rolls; vegetables are almost always slathered in mayo or in a cream-based soup; the protein is always meat, which is fine, but it’s usually hot dogs or fried meats.

    I should also mention that, like the US, rural Japan has higher rates of obesity than in the big cities. Everyone drives here (many even when they could walk or bike); there is no gym or pool in my town (forcing me to drive to another town); many families are not well off and tend to buy and serve cheap instant or pre-made foods.

    Regarding Ashley’s comment about raw vegetables, I have noticed that the Japanese don’t tend to go for raw vegetables. My coworkers and students are horrified by the raw-vegetable salads I bring everyday. It’s a cultural food thing, but, yes, raw or even steamed would be better than “cooked to death.”

    So, while school lunch is a great idea if it is genuinely healthy, in my situation, it only contributes to a culture of fried and curried everything.

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  4. Oh to work at a Junior high school or an elementary school…

    High schools don’t have a school lunch provided for us–students have to bring their own food or go to the bread stall filled with all sorts of terrifying but delicious goodies.

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  5. I second that about ESID. I teach at a high school where they don’t offer school lunch, but there is a bread room where there is a wide selection of unhealthy bread/donut items for sale. There are usually also a few bentos for sale, but they are always half white rice plus fried or processed meats and tsukemono — not what I’d consider healthy.

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  6. It’s easy to pull one selective meal out of a school lunch program and hold it up as a stellar example, but there are a lot bad lunches in Japan, too. Japanese curry meals or meals with large bread rolls as a major component.

    The main reason lunches in the U.S. are bad is that people don’t want to pay more taxes and make them good. The reason Reagan wanted ketchup classified as a vegetable had nothing to do with any spurious attitudes about nutrition. It was about saving money. Japan, up until this year, didn’t have free high school so there was less of a tax burden on Japanese citizens to provide for education. They could afford better meals by not ponying up the dough for 3 years of public schooling.

    Time will tell if making high school free is going to have an overall impact on other areas of Japanese education including meals.

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  7. Japanese farm land is 7 times less productive than equivilant acreage in the US. Where’d you find the 20 times more productive “fact?”

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  8. I get the every situation is different. I guess I have a lot more love put into each meal on my small island. I also agree about the bread and rice, that white starches (especially in excess…getting pushed into the bloodstream and whatnot) are crap in comparison to whole grain bread and brown rice. As far as organic and free range food is concerned, I think the whole world has a long way to go. That’s a bit further down the road.

    I stick by my assertion though, that school lunches (lunches actually served by schools) and lunch education are better in Japan than America. Again, I don’t have any high schools to speak of, and of course eating bakery food only does not count at all.

    In elementary school (ESID) the teachers actually eat with the students, make them eat all their veggies and teach them about real food groups. In the elem’s especially, the vegetables are various and in good supply. This is not true in America except for extremely health conscious areas. I remember chicken nuggets, fries, high fructose everything, plenty of white bread, a snack with every meal, and pizza receiving high nutritional accolades.

    In Japans elem’s (ESID) the vegetables are blanched at most. My school’s students even grow their own vegetables at times. The proper lunch education is instilled from a young age…and although the nutrition doesn’t steadily manifest through the high schools (zannen), at least the seeds have been planted. This, again, is something we don’t have in America.

    Most Japanese know a wealth of knowledge on healthy foods and some know why each strange vegetable is healthy. Whether or not they choose to live healthy might again have something to do with the discontinued stress on lunch education in the high grades.

    As for rural obesity, where did you get that info? I know it’s a shame that poor families will make the uneducated choice of premade, frozen foods…especially considering the money the lose.

    Also, I read that the Japanese soil is much more fertile than American equivalents. where’d you find that info?

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  9. Dan, I think the one reader was questioning the line where you said “that Japan has one of the most fertile soils in the world (growing rice with something like 20 times more productivity than most rice growing countries)…”

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  10. Oh, it’s not the farmers as well, everyone else. I do live in a fishing-and-farming community, but the majority of people I interact with are the service-industry and white-collar workers. I’m sure the farmers eat better than the rest of us, health-wise.

    Sounds like your school lunches are a lot better than ours. And yeah, cream-based vegetable soup is real food (high in fat, but made of whole ingredients), whereas high-fructose everything and packaged snacks are not.

    One general article (2006) on obesity (that has nothing do to with school lunch, but is about general food trends): http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/mar/02/japan.justinmccurry

    The urban-rural obesity gap: http://www.nature.com/oby/journal/v12/n2/abs/oby200427a.html

    Yeah, it could be a lot worse, and even rural Japan is nothing compared to the US. But the driving-fast food-sedentary job lifestyle that the people around me lead definitely shows.

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  11. sorry, this has nothing to do with the article, but is the pic of the centipede for real? How’s the bug situation in different parts of japan?

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  12. Haha, the bug picture was taken off wiki commons. It was more of a scare tactic. I would say insects are more prevalent in rural Japan, but it depends where. I’ve been lucky enough to only see centipedes the size of half a finger which just scurried away (and I’m pretty rural). None inside my house though. I have seen one of my students with centipede bites on his eyelid…and I’ve heard a horror story or two on the size of them. As for spiders, I just battled one a little smaller than the size of my palm in my house. http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=13175725&l=1799c7f165&id=724410424 I hate big spiders, though. As for other bugs…hmmm, little harmless jumping spiders, an occasional small cockroach, some stinkbugs, potato bugs, caterpillars in their season. Mosquitos can be a hassle.

    Odorunara, thanks for the links!

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  13. I have to say that I hate the lack of green vegetables in the Japanese diet. Sure, there is a lot of cabbage, but since it is cooked so much it derives it of its nutrients. I think we have cabbage almost every day in some form in my school lunch (in the soup, as a “cabbage salad”, etc.,). Many Japanese people have a problem with constipation, and if they would just eat more leafy green vegetables it would help. Also, a little more variety. Besides cabbage I have carrots and onions almost every day. Konnyaku is also fairly common.

    Also, the lack of fruit is sad. There are a lot of vitamins and nutrients in fruit that would balance out the diet. I know that fruit is expensive here (one reason I hardly eat fruit now in general), but it would be nice to have it a little more often.
    I agree with other comments about brown rice or wheat/grainy bread. I have never seen brown rice at any of the stores in my area, and finding grain or wheat bread is a rarity (and of course 2-3 times the price of white bread).

    Finally, many people who want to eat healthy in America bring their lunch from home. How many people in Japan do the same? I would bring my lunch, but since the school wants me to eat with the students I have to eat the school lunch too.

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  14. “it compensates in the areas of comedy, hospitality, general health, low obesity rates, sanitary toilets, socially condoned drunkenness”

    I agree on that! I give perfect 10 on Japanese discipline as well. If happen to watch the news lately, you will be surprise!

    Greg

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  15. Courtney mentioned how strategically they place food on the plates. I have slowly been learning that there is also a strategic placement of the plates on each tray. I get that the milk goes in the top right and the chopsticks go together at the bottom middle facing right. But I still can’t understand the exacting placement of rice and other dishes. For two years I have helped kids serve meals and yet every day I find a teacher behind me quietly rearranging everything I’ve done. It’s disheartening.

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  16. Ha, it’s really nice story! And yes, I know that is perfect 10 on Japanese discipline as well. Anyway this mentioned view is very pleasant. Thanks for the appreciative post giveaway!

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  17. Whats with the title??? Does everyone hate America?

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  18. Actually this article is very on point.
    I’ve read the comments, and still I agree with what Dan writes.
    I’m half Japanese/American and grew up in Japan, coming to Japan every summer of my life and finally lived in Japan (Tokyo) from 21-34 years of age. Just recently, 10months ago, I moved back to the states (NYC).

    No matter how you look at it, Japan is altogether 100% more health concious that the US. This is not a “who’s better” situation.. it’s just the simple truth. I call it, “intelligent eating”. Growing up in the states, I went to school, saw the cafeteria food.. ate it.. saw what kids brought to school.. and although different families and different districts may serve different things (yes, I moved a lot in the states- from north to south to west)- it is still altogether not a huge difference.

    In Japan, from the beginning starting at home and from a long history of culture- children are eating more intelligent food. America is WAY behind mentally in that area. I agree Americans are tons more health consious now, but while they are slurping vegetable smoothies and doing yoga.. they fail to have a simple “atarimae” consciousness just about simple living. Everything is a “deal” about why or how they do it.. when in a Japanese home or school, children are already eating raw fish or grilled fish and nato from a very young age and not even thinking twice about it.

    Certainly, Japanese convenient stores and many of the westernized foods are not that healthy, but never as unhealthy as the foods that are regularly with no thought- eaten by people here. Even now after being more health conscious, Americans eat things that Japanese cringe at.. without being a health conscious person.

    And to add to that, even just simple white rice which may not have high nutritious content like genmai- is STILL better than white loaf bread sold in supermarkets. TRUST. Coming back here at 35 and seeing what is here NOW, and what has been going on in my life for the past 12 years in Japan is a huge gaping hold of intelligent food culture.

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  19. I apologize.. I meant to say in the first sentence.. that “I grew up in the states..”

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