Elementary School and me: The healthful lunch

Kristina Pino2 Comments
As an elementary school teacher in Japan, one of the most important points in my job description is to assume a healthy eating lifestyle so that the students, by example, make healthful eating choices. And of course, since lunch is the meal that students share with teachers and staff, it's pretty much a big deal.

Everyone in the school, students, teachers, staff -- everyone -- eats the same exact tray of food for lunch. Whatever is on the menu that day -- that's it. Unless you've got an allergy, some religious dietary restriction, or other significant issue with particular foods, there is no exception and there are no substitutions. Not only is it a show of solidarity, but it ensures that everyone in the building had a balanced meal. The ingredients for each day's lunch are delivered to my school by truck each morning around 8:30 a.m. to be prepared for lunch at noon.

The daily school lunch is carefully crafted to ensure there are plenty of good nutrients -- vitamins, fiber, protein, calcium (it comes with a little milk carton), and a bit of sweetness to round things out. Thanks to some help from the government (for public schools), it also only costs about ¥230 per day, which amounts to about US$2.40~ these days. Can't complain about eating your veggies when they're that cheap!

By Japanese law, the principal and/or vice principal of the school needs to consume the school lunch at least half an hour before any students would be going to grab theirs. Part of the reason why is to ensure that it meets the quality standard that is expected of the meal. The other reason is surely so the rest of us in the staff room can just watch him eat while we hungrily wait. For me, the best part about this is the principal lets me sit or stand nearby while he eats and explains what each dish is if I'm not familiar with it.

Once the principal is done eating and approves of the delicious meal, everyone else can start getting ready to get their food. In the case of my school, a student also then comes into the staff room and uses the PA system to announce what's on the plate for today and what's healthy about it.

As a teacher, I have a copy of the menu for the month. The first column on my list has the names of the foods. There are then a few columns following it divided by the essential nutrients or parts of a meal, and each individual item on the menu for that day is listed under one of those categories. And finally, there's a calorie count at the end. For my particular school, the lunch is, on average, about 625 calories each day. It's slightly less for me personally because I drink tea instead of milk.

Yesterday was the first day of official school lunch. The tray consisted of bibimbap, wakame soup, and a couple of strawberries (remember, milk is also included, though it isn't pictured). Bibimbap is a Korean dish that consists of rice, veggies, egg, and beef. Our eggs were scrambled instead of raw. The wakame soup consists mainly of seaweed and tofu, and it has lots of calcium and iodine in it. My principal told me it's often given to women after giving birth because of these nutrients (for nursing).

Today's school lunch consisted of salad with tuna, meatball tomato soup with veggies, and age-pan. The salad itself was plain greens with some tuna mixed in (I intentionally picked up the plate with the least amount of tuna salad on it, by the way). The soup is pretty easy to tell, too.

The marvel of the day for me was that age-pan. It's basically a fried bread, and then it's got some sweet powder on top that someone told me had a little bit of soy bean in it. The bread tastes sweet, and doesn't get all gunky or soggy after sitting for ~45 minutes from when the cart rolled into the room until I actually started eating it. The consistency is kind of a cross between a fluffy doughnut and a particularly fluffy pancake - not moist at all, but not dry, either. I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for that stuff in the future.

That's all I've got for now! As I mentioned in my overview, I'll try and do this each day, but each post will only be as long as maybe the paragraph above in which I explain what the meal is. This post ran kind of long because I also wanted to explain how things work! As always, feel free to leave me comments, feedback, questions, or anything else, below.