Japanese School Meals: Healthy Food Choices and Positive Eating Habits

As befits a country with its own rich traditional cuisine, Japan takes its elementary school lunches very seriously. More than just a meal, lunchtime is considered on par with school lessons in its pedagogical importance. It also helps bond between classmates in a way that only sharing a meal can.

School lunches in Tokyo are planned by the school nutritionist and cooked on site by a group of employees hired specifically for this task. They prepare large pots of soup and rice, etc., which the students on lunch service collect from the kitchen, roll around the classroom on a large cart and then distribute to their classmates – it’s a bit like a portable canteen. Outside Tokyo, school canteens will prepare and distribute food to schools.

Students at the service of students

Photo: AHLN

The lunch service students dress for the role, in a white kitchen cap and a long white smock-style apron. They also wear a regular medical flu mask. As the other students pass by with their trays, they accept a bowl of each dish from the lunch serving kids and take them back to their desks. Utensils are also provided. When the children return to their seats, they place their tray on the mat they have brought from home and placed on their desk.

Also on the desk should be a packet of pocket squares, a small towel and a mug. Students bring these items from home every day in a small bag that they usually hang on the side of their backpack. Recently, some schools have asked students to also bring a toothbrush to brush their teeth after lunch. Teachers eat the same kyuushoku a catered lunch at their office with the students.

What is on the menu?

So what are they eating? Most often rice, soup, salad and a meat or fish dish. A 200 milliliter bottle of milk is included daily, but once or twice a month coffee milk or a yogurt drink is served instead. The rice dish is rarely plain white rice. Instead, it will contain something like mixed mushrooms or wakame kelp. It is also served as fried rice or pilaf. Sometimes children are given noodles instead. Bread appears as the staple about once a month and is almost certainly sweet. Dessert is served once or twice a week, usually as a fruit, but sometimes as a jelly or pudding.

The soup is most commonly miso soup, but a variety of soups are served, including other Japanese soups, such as clear sumashi-jiru, as well as Western-style Pumpkin Soup and Chinese-style Egg Soup, which make regular monthly appearances. Salads appear almost daily and come in a wide variety – wakame salad, bean sprout salad, French salad, potato salad – but all the ingredients, even the cucumber, are cooked to prevent an outbreak of stomach virus.

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