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.


  • e

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

  • maggie james

    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.

  • maggie james

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