2 Things Japanese School Kids Are Learning at Lunch

What if the lunch room was one less place for kids to feel isolated? Could this very same space create common ground? If everyone ate the same food, the playing field would be leveled.
02/06/2013 06:01 pm ET Updated Apr 08, 2013

First it was the French, and now there are foodie rumblings from the Far East. Japanese school kids are eating a better lunch than Americans, so says a recent article in The Washington Post.

That's because kids in Japan are eating something American kids aren't: fresh, local food. Before the collective eye roll begins, a few more details from the WaPo piece, starting with one that sounds familiar.

Japan does struggle with childhood and adolescent eating disorders. Schools in Japan give their students the sort of food they'd get at home -- not at a stadium, as in the United Sates. The meals are often made from scratch. They're balanced but hearty, heavy on rice and vegetables, fish and soups.

As the article goes on to explain, Japanese kids aren't allowed to bring food from home, which acts as a great equalizer. We've recently moved back to the U.S .from Italy, and this was the case at our preschool in Rome as well. There aren't any substitutions -- everyone eats the same thing, and they do it all at once. Of course the nutritional benefits are huge, particularly for kids from economically strapped families who might not get another square meal until the next school day. But it's also a social thing.

Lunchtime becomes a lesson in sitting together, learning the art of talking, sharing and simply enjoying a meal as a group. Aside from education about real food from real ingredients (something we have our own share of hits and misses with on Foodlets.com, my blog about kid-friendly cooking), these kids are also building a sense of community, of civility.

Anyone who has ever been in an American school cafeteria knows one thing: It's not all about the food. Poor kids line up for free lunches, crunchy kids unpack unpopular ingredients, rich kids head for vending machines... it could be any combination of the above and either way, the clique-based hierarchy continues. What you eat for lunch is just another thing to get teased about.

But what if the lunch room was one less place for kids to feel isolated? Could this very same space create common ground? If everyone ate the same food, the playing field would immediately become more level, the same way some schools opt for uniforms instead of street clothes. Second, consider swapping out the hot dogs, pizza and hamburgers for fresh recipes packed with brain-building food designed to increase concentration, boost energy levels and fight off colds and flu. I know American kids don't want to eat a lot of rice and fish but before you think I'm suggesting the local version of birdseed, this kind of food fits the bill: dark chocolate brownies, roasted sweet potato fries and fresh guacamole.

There's one more thing -- Japanese school kids are serving each other. Third graders wear little white coats and carry trays of food. They are 8-years-old and pulling it off. No matter who does what at home, whose rules are strict or lax, everyone is given an equal opportunity to be of service at school.

I'm not interested in moving to Japan. But I might want to send the kids for lunch.