School Food: Japanese Style

by Sarah Henry on July 13, 2010 · 30 comments

in kids & food,school food

My blogging buddy, Christine Gross-Loh, and I share some things in common. We’re both mamas. We’re both a bit obsessed with what our kids eat.

We’re both endlessly fascinated by cross-cultural comparisons regarding raising our respective kids (she’s Korean-American, I’m an Aussie in America). Take her recent post on kids walking on their own in Japan, where she currently lives, for example.

Christine, however, is probably a far superior parent to me. She’s raising four kids boomeranging back and forth between the States and Japan for the past four years or so. How exhausting is that?

She sews her kids clothes and they’re adorable. They don’t turn out all weird, as they would if a certain someone I know tried to make outfits for her son.

She wrote a book about toilet training a baby sans diapers. Have you been following that trend? Um, I can’t go there ’cause I have a preteen son but let’s just say our family would have failed dismally at such an exercise and were happy to say sayonara to diapers looonnnnggg after most toddlers had moved on to Thomas the Tank Engine or Dora the Explorer undies. Plus, she takes the most gorgeous happy snaps of her photogenic children.

Okay, so the voice behind Origami Mommy could be a tad intimidating, except that she’s awfully nice. And insightful.

Consider this recent post of hers on what her children get served for school lunch in Japan.

As regular readers of Lettuce Eat Kale know, I write a lot about school food. So it’s no surprise that I’d be intrigued by Christine’s account of school food, Japan style.

Just look at some of the menu items from her Japanese school food post:

Vegetable fried rice, tofu, and kinoko mushroom soup, spicy bean sprouts

Bibimbap (a Korean dish: rice, mixed vegetables & an egg), tofu and wakame soup, a plum

Summer vegetable curry, daikon salad, and homemade peach sorbet

Sounds delicious, doesn’t it?

When her second son, back in the US for a visit this past spring, saw what passed for food on TV and at school he was pretty shocked — lots of kids bought packaged junk from home. I remember my kid having the same reaction when he left preschool, where they whipped up organic snacks with produce from the garden, and started public elementary school, where, he told me matter-of-factly, “lots of kids bring crap to school to eat.” Of course, there’s also the issue of what most school cafeterias dish up in the U.S.

Read Christine’s whole post to hear about what’s great about eating school lunch in Japan. (As in all aspects of life, it’s not perfect, and Christine’s not shy in pointing out some less savory aspects of the school food experience there). On balance, though, it puts most U.S. school food to shame. Wouldn’t you agree?

Oh, and check out the photos of the food she was served in hospital too. Further evidence that institutional food doesn’t have to be disgusting. More on that matter coming soon.

[Photo: Christine Gross-Loh]

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Frugal Kiwi July 13, 2010 at 11:40 am

As a US expat living in NZ, I’m fascinated with cross-cultural comparisons as well. If you put the Japanese school lunch or hospital food in front of me right now, I’d have a good nosh. If you put US school or hospital food in front of me, I’d be headed out to the compost bin with it, hoping it wouldn’t do anything too nasty to my rotting organics!

Great post and thanks for highlighting a fabulous cross-cultural blogger!
Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..Suckers-


Sarah Henry July 13, 2010 at 11:46 am

I’m with you Frugal Kiwi, the food I was recently served up in two different hospitals made me feel sick just to look at it. Thank goodness for friends delivering edible delights from some of my favorite takeaway joints.


Alexandra July 13, 2010 at 11:50 am

As someone who brought my kids up in France, where CUISINE is king, I am really distressed by how bad school lunches are in the States. I could not believe it when I heard kids eat pizza on a regular basis and drink sodas. “Crap,” yes. We need a movement to bring healthy nutritious food back to the American table, one that spreads beyond California. Thanks so much for highlighting this in your excellent blog.
Alexandra´s last [type] ..PB Boulangerie Bistro to Open for Dinner


Sarah Henry July 13, 2010 at 8:14 pm



Sheryl July 13, 2010 at 11:55 am

This is such an interesting post which only further illustrates how woefully behind we are at giving our kids real-life examples of how to be healthy. Words are not enough; if we don’t show them every day at school with real examples and get them accustomed to what is really nutritious and good for them, how will they ever learn? At 22 and 24, my sons are finally catching on to what I’ve been trying to impart since they were tots (and in diapers way too long, too, as an aside…) But it was too easy to ignore when they were in school and surrounded by all the wrong choices.


Sarah Henry July 13, 2010 at 8:15 pm

Yes, leading by example is always more effective, isn’t it, Sheryl?


Jennifer Margulis July 13, 2010 at 12:15 pm

I’m so impressed with what they are eating in the school lunches in Japan, and hope we can use that country as an example as pioneers like you Sarah move our school lunch food in a more positive direction.

I read Christine’s book on gentle infant pottying and we are paying attention to our daughter’s cues and also cueing her. It’s the best thing since sliced bread! It totally works and is totally amazing.

I too am so impressed with Christine. I can’t sew to save my life, and I don’t know how she manages those trans-ocean flights to and from Japan with her little ones. They are lucky to have her as a mom and I feel very lucky to count her among my friends!


Sarah Henry July 13, 2010 at 8:17 pm

Good to know I have company in the seriously sewing challenged department;)


Ruth Pennebaker July 13, 2010 at 12:49 pm

What a fascinating post. Christine sounds like an amazing woman — and I look forward to reading her in the future.
Ruth Pennebaker´s last [type] ..Quitting Bitching When You’re Ahead


Sarah Henry July 13, 2010 at 8:23 pm

Happy to send Christine your way, Ruth. I think you’ll enjoy her posts, which frequently offer an outside the box perspective.


Lentil Breakdown July 13, 2010 at 4:45 pm

I think it all comes down to one thing—greed. America is the most greedy culture, and this ethos filters down from the corporations, lobbyists and government through our food supply to the kids and the vulnerable. The people at the top are too busy dealmaking than mealmaking.
Lentil Breakdown´s last [type] ..Let the Games Begin


Sarah Henry July 13, 2010 at 8:20 pm

Lentil Breakdown I do believe you’re onto something with this notion of the powers that be being “too busy dealmaking than mealmaking.” Well said.


Meredith July 13, 2010 at 5:23 pm

I read Christine’s post and was amazed and pleased at the menu she described. It helps to be thoughtful about what we eat, but when one is not used to doing that it can seem like a huge effort. Of course, with enough practice, it becomes natural – to eat healthy, natural foods.
Meredith´s last [type] ..Doomsday Dos and Donts


Sarah Henry July 13, 2010 at 8:27 pm

Exactly, Meredith. Kids who eat well just assume that’s how everyone eats. Alas, so do kids who subsist on packaged, processed food-like products.


Kris Bordessa July 13, 2010 at 7:35 pm

The food in American schools is horrific! And unfortunately, oftentimes it doesn’t stop there. Our food is colored or bleached to make it look pretty and people don’t even know it. Milk is ultra-pasteurized, to last longer instead of spoiling as Mother Nature intended. It’s sad, and I’m happy to see that kids in Japan aren’t (yet) being subjected to this fake food. I hope this is one aspect of America that doesn’t slowly work its way across the Pacific to be embraced by Japan.
Kris Bordessa´s last [type] ..Hiking Kalopa State Recreation Area


Sarah Henry July 13, 2010 at 8:21 pm

Fake food. There’s a good name, Kris, for what gets served up to many kids. Hits the nail on the head in a way that “edible, food-like substances” doesn’t quite manage.


Susan July 14, 2010 at 5:44 am

I’m not a Mom myself, but I’m sure you give your kids great examples of healthy eating. That’s something I’d like to impart to my future children, but uh, Mr. Muse isn’t so focused on healthy eating. Let’s just say that in his world, chicken wings are their own food group.


Sarah Henry July 14, 2010 at 8:59 am

Chicken wings as a food group, hey Susan? Sounds like you might want to work on that one for your future children’s sake (and, uh, Mr. Muse’s as well).


MyKidsEatSquid July 14, 2010 at 11:16 am

I used to belong to a Japanese-American cooking group. We’d trade months–one month an American dish the next a Japanese one. The Japanese women in our group spoke about as much English as I speak Japanese (which isn’t a whole lot), but what we shared in common was a love of good food. I always brought my kids along with me and from that group they learned to like mochi balls, tofu, use chopsticks.

Yes, many American kids’ diets are sorely lacking in nutrients, but there’s also pockets and communities where things are changing. If you focus on the problem as a whole, I think it can get discouraging, but from reading your blog and finding out other people’s efforts, I’m encouraged that making small changes can influence others.


Sarah Henry July 14, 2010 at 12:39 pm

I love this cross-cultural story about connecting around food with your kids. Thanks for sharing, MyKidsEatSquid (and mochi balls and tofu too!)


Claudine M Jalajas July 14, 2010 at 5:30 pm

It’s not easy. I work hard to not serve anything pre-packaged or unhealthy. Yet it’s constantly in their faces. What’s a mom to do? I know that I hated school lunches when I was a kid and my French mom always packed my lunch. I often pack my kids’ lunches but I always wonder if they eat it or trade it away.
Claudine M Jalajas´s last [type] ..Learning To Fly


Sarah Henry July 14, 2010 at 10:22 pm

I pack my kid’s lunch too, Claudine. And sometimes he does trade with his buddy — but it’s often for something relatively healthy — so I don’t sweat that too much.


Melanie Haiken July 14, 2010 at 9:35 pm

The one thing I don’t understand is why “modeling” good eating hasn’t worked better, at least in my case. I’m a super healthy eater – love salads, veggies, fruits, and don’t eat much meat. But my kids, despite all my attempts, insist on eating a much more “white bread” type of diet, and as they get older (they are 14 and 17) I have less and less influence. I just don’t get it!


Sarah Henry July 14, 2010 at 10:27 pm

Hey Melanie, Well, for starters, don’t blame yourself. Maybe your kids have other adults in their lives who do eat a more “white bread” diet, and your girls gravitate to that way of eating.

I have a good friend who has three kids. One child has always been a healthy and adventurous eater. One pretty much survives on chicken nuggets alone. One is picky but has a wider repertoire. Same parents, same food gets served up at night. Go figure.


Alisa Bowman July 16, 2010 at 8:12 am

I really hope US schools start to catch up to these others ways of doing things. It’s so sad what passes for “edible” in this country.
Alisa Bowman´s last [type] ..The Hidden Camera Marriage


RookieMom Whitney July 30, 2010 at 12:05 pm

Hi Sarah, I read your contributions on Berkeleyside; I am the co-founder of and My son is about to enter the Berkeley public school system and I am just realizing that he’s going to be exposed to all kinds of things that we consider unacceptable for lunch. Any words of wisdom on how to arm him to maintain perspective on that? I’m wondering if I should prep him ahead of time.
RookieMom Whitney´s last [type] ..Erin&8217s Two Very Rookie Summers


Sarah Henry July 30, 2010 at 4:21 pm

Hi RookieMom,

Lovely to see you here and nice to know you follow me on Berkeleyside as well.

Congrats on your incoming BUSD kindergartner. I’m not sure what you’ve heard about Berkeley public school lunch, but it’s about as good as it gets. Salad bar, organic milk & meat, whole grains, hot foods filled with veggies. No chocolate milk or highly processed, packaged crap here.

It’s not perfect, of course, but Ann Cooper, Bonnie Christensen and crew have done their very best to overhaul cafeteria food. Click on the school food link on my blog to read back stories about BUSD lunches.

Snack, which is provided by family & caregivers, is another story. Teachers do their best to provide guidelines for appropriate food but they’re beholden to whatever comes in with the kids. Sometimes, though not frequently in our experience, that can be rubbish. If your kid is already a healthy eater, he may just pass on junk snack that doesn’t appeal (or delight in scarfing down some forbidden food;)


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