Two Weeks Of Japanese School Lunch

By Donald Ash | Japanese Culture

Time To Eat Japanese School lunch

No matter how you stir it, slice it or serve it, more often than not, teaching public school is a full-time job. So your school becomes like a second home of sorts. This is true whether you’re teaching in the U.S. or teaching in Japan. Spending lots of time at your school means that you’ll end up eating there pretty regularly, namely during lunch time. Among the many delightful differences between Japanese and American school culture, one glaring difference is public school lunch.


In elementary school, I was one of the kids who “brown-bagged” lunch from home. Even when Mom was pressed for time, public school lunch couldn’t compare to what Mom made. In high school, I wanted to add muscle to my lanky frame. So I started making my own lunches. Nope, my lunches weren’t as tasty as the ones Mom made. However, I realized that the only way I was going to get the protein and nutrients I needed was to make my own stuff. I can literally count on one hand the number of times I ate cafeteria lunch.

When I say “public school lunch,” what image comes to mind?

I see a heavyset woman with plastic gloves and a hairnet. She’s scooping up a ladle-full of mystery goo and plopping it onto my plastic, yellow tray. I travel down the assembly line of “mysterious goodness.”

Don’t get me wrong, I think public school lunch is ESSENTIAL because there are kids who might not get to eat otherwise. While school lunch is a wonderful concept, it seems like it could be so much better (at least in the U.S.)

Teaching public school in Japan, though, I almost never see anyone carrying a lunch from home. Unless of course there was a day (generally specified in advance) where everybody knew to bring their lunches. Nearly every kid eats school-made lunches. If kids have food allergies, the school gets notified and the lunch staff makes adjustments (crazy, right?).

Having eaten public school lunch in the U.S. and here in Japan, I have to admit that I think Japanese public school lunches (給食, kyushoku) BEAT THE PANTS OFF of the lunches I remember at my elementary school (except for maybe pizza day). Why?


I was pleasantly surprised to see how balanced the meals on the students’ plates were. I loved that lunches had a protein source, vegetables, carbs and milk to power the kids through the last half of the day. There were days where some of the lunches went a little overboard on carbs, but overall I was quite impressed with the nutritional balance.

Some parts of the meal were cooked right there at the school each day, namely soup. There was fish, fresh tomatoes, and green lettuce (as opposed to the slightly brown, wilting kind). Kids were smiling while they ate their vegetables instead of just eating around them or tossing them.


Can you guess what one of the culture shocks was when I taught at my very first Japanese public school? There was no cafeteria!!!!

Believe me, I checked…and checked…but never found one.  Now I can only speak to Japanese kindergartens and elementary schools; I’m not sure whether or not Japanese middle and high schools have cafeterias.

As a result, students eat their lunches right in their classrooms.  Every week a group of students is designated to don aprons, plastic caps, and serve their peers!

Not having a cafeteria means that Japanese lunch is something that everyone in the school is responsible for, including the teachers & kids. This makes it an entirely different experience. It’s not a small, overworked staff dishing out food as fast as they can for the masses. You’re having lunch with your class and your teacher.

Yes, I’m sure there are benefits to the cafeteria-style lunch, too. However, the smaller, cozier lunch-style puts a tally mark on the lunch quality side of things, at least from my perspective.


Did anybody else’s high-school have a soft-serve machine? Mine certainly did.  If you had the money, you could get ice cream. Plain and simple.
How about after-school stores that sold just about every kind of junk food you could get your hands on? Yep, had that too.

Comparing that to the junk food culture I’ve seen here in Japan is fascinating. I’ve seen so little junk food in the Japanese schools I’ve taught for. I can’t even remember seeing kids chewing gum! WTF?!? Where were the vending machines with all the hot fries? Where was the candy lady’s house (LOL)?

While I know junk food can be bad for your health, I have mixed feelings about kids being able to eat it. I wholeheartedly agree that kids should be eating the good stuff 90-95% of the time, but treats every now and again aren’t a bad thing.

However, the lack of junk food may be the reason why the vast majority of the children here are slim. Last I checked, wasn’t obesity a major childhood issue in the U.S.? This seems like a great opportunity for our schools to learn a valuable lesson?


To give you a sense of what Japanese school lunch is like, I wanted to just show you pictures of ten random, days of Japanese school lunch: いただきます! (ITADAKIMASU!) – “Let’s eat!” in Japanese.

**The reason why I just say “soup” in each of the pictures is that I honestly don’t know the names. I apologize for that in advance. If anyone knows…there’s a comment space below just begging for you to post **


Japanese School Lunch 1

Japanese School Lunch Day One: When you mix the vegetables, rice, and meat from this dish (which most kids do), it’s like eating the Korean dish, Bibimbap.


Japanese School Lunch Day 2

Soup, Rice, Meatballs, Spinach and Corn Salad, and Milk. Those meatballs were my second favorite dish at the school. Whatever sauce they were using was slammin’!


Japanese School Lunch Day 3

Bread, Fish Filet (with tartar sauce), Tomato Soup, Salad, and Milk. I think some meals are universal.


Japanese School Lunch Day 4

Today was a simpler lunch day: Rice, Soup, Chicken Patty, Salad, and Milk


Japanese School Lunch Day 5

Rice, Soup, Meat Dumplings, Milk and I’m not exactly sure what the main course was, but it was tofu pork and vegetables. I don’t know about the how it looks, but it’s really quite good.


Japanese School Lunch Day 6

Softomen (soft noodles), A Boiled Egg, Miso Soup, Vegetables and Milk. You add the noodles to the soup, little by little.


Japanese School Lunch Day 7

Natto (fermented soybeans), Fish, Potato/Carrot/Sprout Salad, Rice, Soup, and Milk


Japanese School Lunch Day 8

Chicken, Curry, Nan, Broccoli/Corn/Mayo Salad, and Milk. My favorite lunch days were always the curry and nan days. They also had a creamier style of curry which was even tastier. おいしい!!


Japanese School Lunch Day 9

Fish, Rice, Soup, Sweet Dumpling (I’m not sure what they’re called but they taste a lot like the sweet tofu wrap on Gomoku inari zushi) and Milk


Japanese School Lunch Day 10

Fried Chicken, Vegetable Rice, Corn/Pickle/Cucumber/Carrot Salad, Soup, and Milk

The typical Japanese school lunch consists of rice, some form of protein (fish, chicken, beef, etc.), vegetables, soup, and milk. Overall the meals are well balanced and often really tasty. If you’re a teacher here in Japan, what are lunches like at your school? I’d love to see pictures if you feel like sharing! 😀

To wrap things up, can you guess what Japanese students do after lunch?


About the Author

Donald Ash is an Atlanta, Georgia-born, American expat who has been living in a Japanese time warp for the last eleven years. While in that time warp, he discovered that he absolutely loves writing, blogging, and sharing. Donald is the creator of blog. Wanna know more about this guy? Check out his "What's Your Story" page.

  • Anthony G says:

    Lunch day #10 looks delish, Reminds me alot of the usual bento boxes I would buy

  • Valeria Rossini says:

    Aw, Japanese school lunches are soooo good! When I was at school in italy, school lunches were terribile… And here in Japan they also serve NAAN! OMFG, I wish I was still a child just to eat that lunches!!!

    • thejapanguy says:

      You could dress up in a Japanese kid’s school uniform and just walk in, lol. No, on second thought maybe you shouldn’t do that. They are REALLY tasty. I don’t know if it’s the same from school to school, though.

  • DL says:

    Fish filet! With tartar sauce! Mmmmm….
    I shouldn’t have read this article right before lunch though, ’cause now I’m VERY hungry…

  • Nanami says:

    I enjoy Japanese food alot. The day-tod-day dishes seem to be really good and healthy too. I made gyoza last night from scratch and it turned out yummy. Does that count?? I has pictures..!

  • AccessJ says:

    Cool post. It was fun to compare what I ate with another prefecture. 🙂 How deep are those rice dishes? Ours came in a big pot and the kids dished it out. The girls all refused to eat more than four bites, so the boys’ bowls were always LOADED with way too much rice.

    • Donald Ash says:

      Niiiicee! I really enjoyed your photos Access J. There are quite a few similarities, huh? The rice dishes? I don’t remember exactly, but I’d say about an inch deep or thereabouts. It wasn’t all the girls at my elementary school, but many of them didn’t eat so much either, especially as you start to go up in grade level. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Soooo very true lol. The girls were a bit more finicky when it was time to eat everything. But the rice dishes were about as deep as the first digit on an adult index finger maybe slightly deeper.

  • Jennifer says:

    This is amazing! What a great pictorial! Thank you! This is why most children in US are obese and have diabetes. It’s so sad…

  • Helvetica Baskin Robbins says:

    US: wait 25x as long to get 1/3 the lunch!

  • Amy says:

    OH MAN! That was one of my favorite things about teaching in Japan. I loved those school lunches. The students couldn’t believe how deranged I was.

  • Nanami says:

    @_@ these look so much better than the stuff my school served

  • Glen Clark says:

    Thanks for the post. I’m trying to get back to a healthy meal planning and came across this blog. Fantastic!

  • Vanarchist says:

    My kids would prefer these meals to what they get at school, Im going to up my Japanese lunch game for my daughter for sure! -in California

  • Sara says:

    This is what was served yesterday to the kids at the public school I am at. Pears, green beans, both from a can, and some questionable chicken nuggets, and milk.

  • >