Japan shows food education works

Food and society

Japan shows food education works

Japan shows food education works

Meals prepared every morning using local seasonal products, with nutritionists and other experts helping children to learn about and enjoy healthy food and to understand the concept of food sustainability: this is just a snapshot of what is happening in Japan’s school canteens.

According to predictions published in the medical journal The Lancet, children born in Japan in recent years have the longest healthy life expectancy. This is thanks in large part to a healthy lifestyle, and healthy and sustainable diets which Japanese children learn about from a very young age. School and food education (with special national programmes for school meals) are essential for achieving this result, but wouldn’t be as effective as they are without a collection of standards, habits and attitudes linked to health and food sustainability.  

Learning with relish

For Japanese children, lunch time is not just a break between lessons, but a real opportunity for food education. It is their chance to focus on Shokuiku: a project to learn about food and nutrition which the Japanese government has promoted since 2005 through specially designed legislation. Indeed, it does not just involve filling yourself up with nutritionally healthy and balanced meals, but it also teaches young students to understand and respect food, to turn them into adults who are able to make informed choices regarding food sustainability. “Shokuiku consists of three main pillars: cultivating an ability to make choices about food; fostering an understanding of traditional food culture; encouraging an attitude of respect for life and nature through food”. This is according to an article published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, describing the basis and success of school food programmes in Japan. This is why children in Japanese schools eat balanced meals of rice, vegetables, fish and fruit, but also spend some time before tucking in to learn what is in the food and why it is important to eat all of the food served up.  

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Tradition, freshness and moderation

The Japanese say: “Hara Hachi Bun Me” meaning “eat until you are 80% full”. This concept comes from Confucianism – a tradition deeply rooted in Japanese wisdom – which advocates eating moderate-sized portions, and this idea can still be seen in today’s school canteens. The consequences of this approach are clear to see given that Japan remains one of the countries with the lowest levels of childhood obesity (according to the 2017 OECD report on obesity it is at the bottom of the ranking along with Korea) and adult obesity (also according to the OECD, only 3.7% of Japanese people are obese, compared with 9.8% of Italians and 38.2% of adults in the USA). Furthermore, Japanese schools do not have vending machines for snacks and drinks, and all the food available (apart from in the case of special nutritional requirements) is not brought in from home but is prepared directly in school kitchens every morning, using fresh seasonal products, possibly grown locally or even in the school gardens. And for those sceptics who doubt whether these meals can really be appetising and enjoyable for children, the proof of the pudding is in the eating: parents ask for the recipes so that they can make the same meals at home, upon the request of their children.  


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Respect and discipline

With the School Lunch Act of 1954 (launched initially to lift the population out of the suffering endured in the wake of the Second World War), school lunches became part of Japan’s education system, with the added goals of enriching school life and promoting the spirit of cooperation by supporting healthy eating habits, propped up by important social rules. Children are responsible for laying and cleaning the tables, and serving meals, learning good table manners and a sense of gratitude for the food they are eating with their classmates. They can even take part in special lessons with school nutritionists to gain a greater understanding of the history and value of food. Other strict social rules also have to be obeyed, discouraging over-filling your plate or openly displaying dissatisfaction with food that has already been served. The details of the food programmes can be changed to adapt to the specific requirements of each school, but the basic rules and composition of the menus have hardly changed in over 40 years – a testament to the brilliant Japanese notion of making school lunches a moment for education and growth.


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