Lunch break is a time where most children gobble something before running out to play. Japanese school children are taught quite the opposite: School mealtimes are venerated rituals, savoured with mindfulness and appreciation. 

Despite their intensely fast-paced lifestyles, the Japanese are known to outlive other nations--they have one of the longest life expectancies in the world. A key feature of Japanese culture is the art of balance and mindfulness, an approach that is reflected also in the way they eat. They truly understand that good food habits aren’t inborn—they are carefully cultivated. Through Japan’s school lunch system, these values are instilled early in life, and are heavily promoted in a child’s early education.

Today, inside the school compounds of Seinan Elementary School in Minato City, a charming ward within Tokyo prefecture, an irresistibly catchy tune is blasting through the school sound system. Small animated six-year-olds donning identical sportswear are singing and dancing to the sporty anthem outside the school compounds. Jumping in unison to the lively beat, they are practising a carefully choreographed routine set in preparation for their annual sports day. School life doesn’t get any more wholesome than this. Except that in Japan, it does. Apart from attending classes, school children are immersed in the culture of shokuiku, a philosophy of food and nutrition education.

Japanese school lunches were introduced in the 1950s as a post-war government effort, a time of food shortages and malnourished children. At present, it seeks longer-term goals than just to fill little hungry bellies. Modern day school lunch programmes are aimed at setting the stage to foster a lifelong understanding of food, nutrition, and more importantly, creating a habit of making proper food choices among children.

Soon the bell rings, and the sound of excited chatter fills the air. It is lunch time. The lesson for shokuiku begins. Children systematically clear their desks in preparation for another sacred lesson: the lunch hour. An enthusiastic voice booms through the school PA system, revealing the day’s mouth-watering meal: rice mixed with the season’s gift of Sakura shrimp, Japanese rolled omelette, vinegared cucumber and wakame seaweed salad, followed by miso soup with turnip and Japanese mustard spinach. Cartons of milk and Yakult probiotic drinks were doled out to supplement this delicious spread.

For as little as RM9 (236 yen), a unique nutritionist-approved menu is served each day. A typical meal consists of moderate portions of lean meat or fish, with an emphasis on plant foods, including soy and seaweed.   Teachers work hand-in-hand with the school’s in-house nutritionist and chefs to create an original menu that meets the school’s subjective preferences, as well as feature seasonal produce.  The public is jointly roped in these efforts, and schools collaborate with homes and their communities to enlist their participation and input. Parents are often invited to sample the food, and provide suggestions for upcoming menus.

A young Japanese child learns very early on that what he puts into his body is important and will set the stage for his life. He is also taught that while being healthy is largely about making wise food selections, health consciousness extends beyond the plate. It encompasses a whole lot more than nutritional content alone. It is also about having a broader social and communal awareness of mealtimes and what they represent. This awareness begins with the self and creates a consciousness for mindful eating: being attentive to flavours and textures, and food portions: not eating beyond satiety. It is said that when one’s mind is present, it is easier to know when one is full.

Beyond the self, children become more in-tune with the shared experience of the meal time: the preparation of food, table decorum, and the inclusion of others. They are assigned turns to serve one another before finally enjoying the meal together. The same goes towards nurturing a sense of responsibility in cleaning up after themselves after each meal, a role typical of school janitors or wardens. Meal times are events in themselves, and are prioritised as an important part of the day. It is not rushed nor deemed something to quickly get out of the way before playtime. Instead, the children and their teachers eat together, and this becomes a continuous daily opportunity to foster closer relationships.

Beyond this, there is a third aspect in the cultivation of shokuiku--children learn to appreciate in a wider sense, the origins of their food sources. School lunches become a platform to showcase regional dishes and seasonal ingredients, as a way to preserve Japanese food culture as well as to garner a child’s interest in what they consume. Furthermore, the school lunches often incorporate popular dishes from other countries to promote better understanding of cultures beyond their own.

Often, the children themselves are involved in the process of food preparation. Even first-graders are given the chance to peel their own vegetables. Visceral hands-on contact with ingredients create curiosity that goes a long way in deepening food appreciation. Young minds become aware of the produce grown on their local soils, their environmental impacts, and the hands that prepare these meals. Each midday becomes a reminder that having food is a blessing, and these young students learn to give thanks for each meal.

There is much to be learnt from this daily exercise, and thus it is said that lunch break in Japanese schools aren’t really a break from education at all. This guiding philosophy continues to be invisible hands that nurtures each and every child to have an interest in managing and promoting their own health. It can be a powerful realisation for children to know that they have the ability to take control and strengthen their bodies, all on their own.  When children discover that real, nourishing food is a genuine pleasure and a fundamental part of daily life, this is perhaps the most empowering reality of all.