A report by UNICEF, The State of the World’s Children, addressed the nutritional habits of children around the world. It shows Japan topping the charts for childhood health indicators, with low rates of infant mortality and few underweight children. Japan also manages the lowest incidence of childhood obesity among the 41 developed countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and European Union.
The Japanese diet is comprised of a good balance of fresh and seasonal greens and grains. Studies have shown various health benefits of the Japanese diet. Their nutritional habits extend to school lunches. The end result isn't just a satisfied student body, but one that learns responsibility and healthy eating habits. Japan's life expectancy is among the highest in the world, while it's rate of obesity is well below the global average.
Positive Eating Habits
The healthy Japanese school lunches is not just about food ingredients. They call it Shokuiku, which means "food and nutrition education," and it's a vital part of the Japanese child's early education.
Beginning in elementary school, kids come to understand that what you put into your body matters a great deal in how you think and feel throughout the day — and how you go about your life. As a country, Japan prioritizes school lunch. If parents can't afford the 2.25€ (in year 2022) cost of a meal, free and reduced lunch programs help kids stay full.
Lunchtime is considered on par with school lessons in its educational importance. It isn't hurried or hasty — kids get the time just to sit and eat. Kids serve one another in an effort to reinforce a culture of self-sufficiency and community. In many schools, there is no janitor. Kids learn to pick up after themselves.
Healthy Food Choices
Healthy food is also more than just biochemical structure and calculation of calories and nutritional value. It is a connection to the world around us. Therefore, through an abundance of ingredients and different cooking methods, kids at the very early age learn to accept and appreciate food.
So what exactly do they eat in the Japanese school lunches? Most often rice, soup, different vegetables 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 plain white rice or mixed with something such as mushrooms or wakame kelp. It also gets served as fried rice or pilaf. Occasionally the kids get noodles instead. Bread appears as the staple about once a month and almost certainly is sweet. Dessert is served once or twice a week, most often as a piece of fruit, but occasionally as a jelly or pudding.
The soup is most often miso soup, but a variety of soups are served, including other Japanese soups, such as the clear sumashi jiru, as well as Western-style pumpkin soup and Chinese-style egg soup, which make regular, monthly appearances. Salads appear most days and come in a wide variety—wakame salad, bean sprout salad, French salad, potato salad—but all ingredients, even cucumber, are cooked to prevent an outbreak of stomach virus.
You can see more photos of the Japanese school lunches here.
How about here in Slovenia?
The goverment of Slovenia actually has given very detailed guidelines about School Meals. There are pages of Guidelines For Nutrition In Educational Institutions (Smernice za prehranjevanje v vzgojno-izobraževalnih zavodih) and Practicum of healthy eating menus (Praktikumu jedilnikov zdravega prehranjevanja) with a very detailed illustration on a “healthy diet”. The budget of daily lunch is similar to Japan at 2.73 € (in year 2023) per day. The School Nutrition Act (Zakon o šolski prehrani) stated that-
taking into account the principles of sustainable consumption, it provides high-quality school food, which influences the optimal development of pupils and students, the development of awareness of healthy food and eating culture, the upbringing and education for a responsible attitude towards oneself, one's health and the environment, and enables pupils and access to healthy school meals for pupils;
What is the reality though? To begin with, after years of working here in Slovenia, I have never seen such a chaotic definition of meals, when a lunch could range from 10 am to 5 pm. In most other places I have been to, lunch is the main meal around 12-1 pm, with usually 30–60 minutes of eating time. This meal time is indeed written on the Slovenian Guidelines and at some point it helped the young student by ensuring a real lunch around 1pm. However, once they have left the primary school, the middle school and high school are not straight about this anymore. Everyday when I go to work, I see students eating burek and pizza on the street while walking back to school around 10:30 am. There are quite a lot of my patients stop eating breakfast since high school. And the students are not the only one to have confusing or unusual eating habits, it is actually the adults. Most people eat lunch/malica at 9-10 am without a breakfast then a “lunch” at 3-4pm when they come home from work. In the previous article about the circadian rhythm and the importance of of meal time, I have already mentioned how our eating habits affect our metabolism and overall health. Judging by the social norm, it is quite sad to say that the school meal guildline has not really fulfilled its objective.
Another difficulty of school meals are from the school itself. I have quite a number of school kitchen chefs patients. They are severally under-staffed. When only 2 people are cooking for 500 kids, what kind of food quality can you expect? A lot of their work come from preparing 2 meals and cleaning up. Sometimes I do wonder, instead of cooking 2 low quality meals, is it easier to ask the parents to prepare a simple sandwich and then just eat one proper meal at school prepared at the school kitchen? Also, students are only kids, but not handicapped, the young ones are completely capable of simple meal preparation and cleaning up with a proper guidance and instruction. Let them do what they are supposed to do and free up the kitchen staff.
More reflections and explorations
Is there anything we can learn and adapt from the success of the Japanese? One thing for sure is that we cannot simply put Japanese food on our menu. We must stop taking the “healthy food” short cut. It should be the organization, concept and principles of meals that we should look into. So, what can we do about this situation, for the seek of our next generation and our future healthcare?