Japan's unique food culture and its abundance of cuisines are recognized worldwide, with Japanese school lunches and Bentō-boxes being arguably one of the most distinct. In this article, I would like to introduce you to the origins of Japan's culinary culture: children's school lunches and Bentō-boxes.
＊ Common Japanese phrases related to meals
"いただきます (Itadakimasu)" is a common Japanese expression that is used before eating a meal. It is a polite way of expressing gratitude and appreciation for the food that has been prepared and served. The word "itadakimasu" comes from the Japanese verb "いただく (itadaku)," which means "to receive" or "accept" humbly.
"ごちそうさまでした (Gochisōsama-deshita)" is a Japanese expression commonly used after finishing a meal, which expresses gratitude and respect to the people who prepared the dish and served it.
The word "gochisōsama" is an honorific expression that means "to feast" or "meal," and "です (desu)" and "た (ta)" are forms of the verbs "to be" and "to do." So, "gochisōsama-deshita" can be roughly translated to "it was a feast" or "thank you for the meal."
In Japanese, "itadakimasu" and "gochisōsama" are expressions used to express gratitude when eating a meal. It is polite to say these expressions before and after you eat in Japan, and it is always practiced, especially in kindergartens and elementary schools.
You could say that this word well expresses Japanese culture that places importance on showing respect. Also, by putting your hands together while saying "itadakimasu" or "gochisōsama," you can express gratitude for the meal itself as well as to the person who prepared it.
In Japan, it is quite common to enjoy seasonal and regional flavors through cuisine, and even when eating a meal, it is common for people to discuss the origins, history, and methods used to prepare the food.
"Shoku-iku (食育)" is a Japanese term that combines the kanji characters for "食 (shoku; food)" and "育 (iku; education)." It refers to the education as well as awareness of proper nutritional knowledge, healthy eating habits, and overall food culture.
In Japan, "Shoku-iku" is a comprehensive approach to nutrition education that aims to promote healthy eating habits and prevent diet-related health problems. It includes a wide range of topics such as understanding how to read food labels, learning how to cook healthy meals, understanding the cultural and social aspects of food, as well as developing an appreciation for locally-sourced seasonal foods.
In Kindergartens, children sometimes experience harvesting vegetables to eat for lunch, while in elementary schools, they learn about the fields and places that produce vegetables, fish, and other foods.
＊ Lunch for Children in Japan
School Lunch in Japanese Elementary Schools
Most elementary school lunches are freshly prepared by cooks working in the school kitchens. Daily menus are determined by the nutritionist at each school. The menus are not fixed, but vary from day to day.
Nutritional balance is the most important aspect when creating a school lunch menu, and about 4 to 5 small dishes are served, including staple foods (rice, bread, noodles), beans, fish, meat, vegetables, and other side dishes, as well as milk and fruits. Depending on the region, local specialties, seasonal menus, and dishes from around the world are served as part of the "Shoku-iku" program.
In elementary and junior high schools in Japan, there are "school lunch duty positions," where students take turns serving and preparing the meal. School lunch in Japan is not just a meal; it is also a part of learning.
Lunch at Kindergartens and Daycare Centers
Daycare centers provide school lunches and snacks prepared on site, just as elementary schools do. On the other hand, although it depends on each school, kindergartens often have kids bring their own Bentō-boxes 2 to 3 times a week, while they prepare Bentō-boxes for the remainder of the week. Similar to school lunches, many parents prepare Bentō-boxes with a variety of side dishes in a small Bentō-box to ensure their child enjoys a good nutritional balance. People from abroad are often surprised to see Japanese children's Bentō-boxes, as it is common for children abroad to bring their lunches in a paper bag with some snacks.
Lunch at Junior High and High Schools
In many cases, junior high and high schools also offer school lunches or have cafeterias, but it is still common for students to bring their own Bentō-boxes. Japanese children have many opportunities to eat from Bentō-boxes from their early childhood throughout their school years, so many of them have fond memories of this experience.
＊ Japanese Bentō-boxes are Now a Worldwide Trend!
In recent years, Japanese "おべんとう (Obentō)" have been attracting attention from around the world, with restaurants specializing in Japanese Bentō-box style lunches gaining popularity in New York and other urban areas.
So, what exactly is the hype over the "Obentō"?
Point 1: Healthy and Well-balanced
One of the main attractions of Obentō is that, compared to pizza, hot dogs, and other carbohydrate-based lunches, Obentō is a healthy and well-balanced alternative that use various ingredients, including rice, fish, and vegetables.
Point 2: Aesthetically Appealing
One of the characteristics of Obentō is its beautiful presentation and layout. The small boxes are beautifully packed with colorful ingredients and are a pleasing to the eye. Another popular type of Obentō that is commonly made for children is the "キャラ弁 (Kyara-ben; character lunch boxes)," in which character-shaped rice balls and side dishes are prepared and decorated in an adorable style. These Obentōs are filled with Japanese "kawaii" aspects.
As I have been raising my own children, I too enjoy making such Kyara-ben for my children's lunches. It is no exaggeration to say that Kyara-ben is a form of art.
Point 3: Environmentally Conscious
In addition, Obentōs have been gaining attention as an environmentally conscious food culture. Since "Bentō-boxes" are used instead of the typical single-use plastic containers, it can drastically reduce the amount of trash produced. When eating an Obentō, it is common to also bring along utensils, such as a set of chopsticks along with you, and when you're finished eating, you can bring both the Bentō-box and chopsticks back home to wash and reuse them for future occasions.
What did you think? The expressions "Itadakimasu" and "Gochisōsama" indicate how much Japanese people value food and how much they are taught about food from early on in their lives.
I personally recommend the Japanese-style Obentō too, as it is a great alternative with both environmental and dietary advantages, not to mention how exquisite it looks!
I have been making Obentōs every morning for nearly 20 years since I was a student, and it has now become a habit. I feel especially satisfied when I am able to successfully make a cute Kyara-ben. Japanese-style Bentō-boxes can also be purchased overseas, so if you are interested, please give it a try!