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Japanese schools work from scratch to keep lunches healthy, simple, flavorful

TOKYO — In Japan, school lunch means a regular meal, not one that harms your health. The food is grown locally and almost never frozen. There’s no “mystery’’ meat. From time to time, parents even call up with an unusual question: Can they get the recipes?

‘‘Parents hear their kids talking about what they had for lunch,’’ said Tatsuji Shino, the principal at Umejima Elementary School in Tokyo, ‘‘and kids ask them to re-create the meals at home.’’

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Japan takes seriously both its food and its health and, as a result, its school lunches are a point of national pride — not a source of dismay. As other countries, including the United States, struggle to design school meals that are healthy, tasty, and affordable, Japan has all but solved the puzzle, using a system that officials here describe as utterly common sense.

In the United States, where obesity rates have tripled over the past three decades, new legislation championed by Michelle Obama has pushed schools to debut menus with controversial calorie restrictions. But even the healthiest choices are generally provided by large agri-food companies, cooked off site, frozen, and then reheated, and forced to compete in cafeterias with all things fried, salty, and sweet.

Schools in Japan, by contrast, give children the sort of food they’d get at home, not at a stadium. The meals are often made from scratch. They’re balanced but hearty, heavy on rice and vegetables, fish and soups. The meals haven’t changed much in four decades.

Mealtime is a scene of communal duty: In elementary and middle schools, students don white coats and caps and serve their classmates. Children eat in their classrooms.

They get identical meals, and if they leave food untouched, they are out of luck: Their schools have no vending machines. Barring dietary restrictions, children in most districts can’t bring food to school, either, until they reach high school. Japan’s system has an envious payoff — its children are relatively healthy. According to government data, Japan’s child obesity rate, always among the world’s lowest, has declined for each of the past six years, a period during which the country has expanded its dietary education program.

Japan does struggle with childhood and adolescent eating disorders, and government data show a rise in the number of extremely skinny children. But there is virtually no malnutrition resulting from poverty and the Japanese live on average to 83, longer than any other population, according to the World Health Organization.

When it comes to food, Japan has some deeply ingrained advantages. Children are taught to eat what they are served, meaning they are prone to accept, rather than revolt against, the food on their plates. But Japan also invests heavily in cultivating this mindset. Most schools employ nutritionists who, among other tasks, work with children who are picky or unhealthy eaters.

Though Japan’s central government sets basic nutritional guidelines, regulation is surprisingly minimal. Not every meal has to meet precise caloric guidelines. At many schools, a nutritionist draws up the recipes — no bureaucratic interference. Central government officials say they have ultimate authority to step in if schools are serving unhealthy food, but they can’t think of any examples where that happened.

Funding for lunches is handled locally, too: Municipalities pay for labor costs, but parents — billed monthly — pay for the ingredients, about $3 per meal, with reduced and free options for poorer families. Though Japanese towns face their own budget pressures and many are in debt, local authorities have treated school lunch as a priority.

Notable is what’s lacking: You don’t see low-fat options. You don’t see dessert, other than fruit and yogurt. You occasionally see fried food, but in stark moderation. On a recent day at Umejima, children were served the Japanese version of fried chicken, known as karaage. Each child was allowed one nugget.

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