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Japan has one of the lowest childhood obesity rates in the world. This comes as no surprise to me having experienced firsthand Japan’s school lunch programme and the wider integrated approach to food education in Japanese schools.

I spent three years working in Japan, first as a student myself and later as a teacher in a rural village. After ten years, I returned to Japan to visit that same village, and the school, teachers and students who had been such a big part of my life.

I had long admired Japan’s school lunch system and education around food in general, and I’m not the only one. Across the globe Japanese school lunches are highly regarded as some of the most nutritious and balanced thanks to Japan’s long term investment in the lunch programme.

One of the central pillars of Japan’s approach is having a dietitian or nutritionist in each school, who devises meal plans which are prepared by the canteen staff. On the occasion of my visit I had the pleasure of speaking to the school nutritionist who shared exactly what goes into carrying out the world renowned school lunch programme.

What’s Different About Japan’s School Lunches

In all Japanese schools students must eat the same school lunch. In fact, children are not allowed to bring their lunch from home. While the lunches are not free, they are high subsidised and children pay around €2.50 per meal.

The meals are prepared according to seasonal menus planned by a nutritionist. In this way schools provide students with the calories and nutrition they might not otherwise receive at home. All meals are prepared with fresh foods (not frozen or processed), contain a balanced and controlled number of calories and include seasonal fruit and vegetables.

Lunches are based on the washoku, or traditional Japanese meal structure, which includes rice, soup, and ichijūsansai (three side dishes) composed of a balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fibre.

There is an strong emphasis on getting the kids involved all aspects of the lunch – from preparation to clean up. Students typically set the tables, serve each other and clean based on a rota system. A great way to encourage them to take part in these activities outside of school also.

Learning About Food Waste

Food waste is also proactively monitored. The school’s nutritionist takes account of wasted food, and if there are foods or dishes that the students don’t seem to enjoy they will change the menu.

To further avoid food waste, children are also encouraged to trade their lunches if there’s something they don’t like. So, if a child doesn’t like a part of the meal they will play a game of Rock Paper Scissors and swap another student for a different element of the meal. At first this struck me as a bizarre approach, but it works really effectively to reduce the amount of food waste.

More Than Just Lunch: Food Education

Importantly, lunch is considered not only a time to feed students, but also an opportunity to educate them about food and nutrition. This ethos is so ingrained in the system that school lunch is actually referred to as shokuiku, which means ‘food and nutrition education.’

Students learn about what they are eating and why certain foods and nutrients are good for them. The school gives children a newsletter to take home, to inform the them about these topics in a fun and engaging way. And it works! Ask any Japanese child what vegetables are currently in season and they’ll list them off for you.

During my visit to the school they were working on a project that focused on hidden ingredients in foods and how to decipher a food label. The walls on the walkway from the classrooms to the canteen were covered with food product labels with certain ingredients highlighted.

The impact of the lunch programme is that from an early age Japanese children learn healthy eating habits, the importance of nutritious foods, and wider issues about food, such as what’s in season and how food is produced.

In Japan, the focus is on much more than just the food itself, and looks at food education too – something all countries could learn from.

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