Childrens Health

Here’s Why Japanese School Lunches are Transforming the Way Kids Learn About Food


Japan has long been renowned for its approach to health and nutrition, deeply rooted in its culture and education system. I didn’t realise this until recently when I travelled to Japan with the team at Yakult, to discover how it’s become an integral part of everyday life. Sure, I knew the Japanese were very health conscious, but what I didn’t expect was just how Japanese school lunches are having such a positive impact on their belief around good nutrition, and I think we could learn by taking a leaf out of their book!

Yakult – a Daily Essential in Japan

One standout aspect of Japanese life is the huge presence of Yakult. Sure, we know of it here in Australia, and have been singing its praises for years, but in Japan, many schools across the country include a bottle of Yakult on each lunch tray because they believe it’s so good for their kids.

And rightly so, because Yakult’s been a part of daily life in Japan for almost 90 years.  And with over 10 million bottles sold EVERY SINGLE DAY in Japan, I’m not surprised it’s become a key part of daily life. Add to this that Japanese culture has grown up recognising the role good gut health plays in overall well-being, it all ties together.

Japanese school lunches influence nutrition from a young age

One of the standout experiences of my entire visit was visiting Nitobe Bunka Gakuen School, a private junior college with students ranging from Kindergartners to Senior students, where the value of good nutrition is woven into the fabric of daily life.

Belinda at Nitobe Bunka Gakuen-School lunch
This school visit was one of the standouts of my Japan tour! Source: Supplied

From the very beginning, kindergarten kids learn how to grow (and then eat) their own fruit and veggies. They will compost all the leftover cafeteria scraps, use it to help and then watch their eggplant and spinach grow while they instil an appreciation for food and how its developed.

Middle and high school students grow plants including eggplant, strawberries, kiwi fruit, chilli peppers, green zucchini and even cotton. As part of this experience, they then pick the cotton and will then make something with it.

Nitobe Bunka Gakuen-School growing stations
A selection of produce being grown by the children. Source: Supplied

School lunches in Japan

This is where it got interesting.

It’s customary that every day, students are served lunch in their class homeroom, freshly prepared in the school’s kitchen. At least 70% of meals served each week are Japanese, with the goal here to serve at least one Japanese meal each day, therefore drawing down on their Japanese heritage.

What’s more, students studying food subjects actively participate in the preparation and cooking of the lunches as part of their studies, with each class having a roster for children to help serve the food alongside their teachers. It’s an impressive system that blends practical learning with daily nutrition.

Nitobe Bunka Gakuen-School classroom servers
Students are rostered to help serve lunch each day. Source: Supplied

Why served in the classroom? It makes sense for many reasons, including keeping everything contained in their classroom (from serving, to seating and cleaning up afterwards).

Nitobe Bunka Gakuen-School classroom
Source: Supplied

Plus, in Japan, it’s customary to wait until everyone has their meal before starting to eat, so this way classes can start when they’re ready, rather than wait for the whole school to assemble then eat.

Boy waiting for lunch at Nitobe Bunka Gakuen-School in Japan with Yakult on his tray
Young boy reading while he waits for his class to be ready to eat. Source: Supplied

While the lunch team fetches the food, the other students prepare the classroom. Each child lays out their own lunch equipment which they’ve brought from home. This includes a cloth placemat and towel, they put on their ‘aprons’ to protect their uniform and bring out their own chopsticks/spoons etc.

Nitobe Bunka Gakuen-School lunch with Yakult
Each child brings their own placemat, cutlery and ‘aprons’. Source: Supplied

What I really loved most, is that Japanese children learn the importance of a balanced diet from a young age. They are exposed to a variety of foods and taught to understand the value of incorporating proteins, vitamins, and minerals into each meal. It’s second nature really, so they quickly learn how a balanced diet plays an integral role in health across a lifetime. This approach is not just about feeding their bodies but also educating their minds.

Seeing the integral role nutrition plays in their daily routine made me think about how we in the Western world approach food with our kids, and the opportunities we may have missed for them.

Nitobe Bunka Gakuen-School gratitude
Children give thanks before each meal. Source: Supplied

MA-GO-WA-YA-SA-SHI-I – Meal planning with a difference

The staff who plan the meals get very strategic too. In Japan they follow a pretty awesome framework to create balanced meals.

Ma-Go-Wa-Ya-Sa-Shi-I menu framework Japan
Source: Supplied

By basing meals on this framework, and ensuring there’s an element of each part in the meal somewhere, they ensure everyone gets a balanced and healthy diet through their school lunches.

So when I saw this, it made the meals I’d been having out make so much more sense! This was one of the lunches we had after the school visit.

My lunch at Japanese restaurant
So many elements covering balanced nutrition. Source: Supplied

The school are also bucking the meat trend by featuring fish as one of the prominent protein ingredients, and in the process exposing their students to a wider range of flavours and dishes.  Around 30% of meals served each week feature fish, including no less than 7 different varieties across a month, with the goal being to serve the students 20+ different types of fish across the year. On the day we were there, salmon was the protein served at lunch.

Lunch on tray at Nitobe Bunka Gakuen-School in Japan
Source: Supplied

The school uses seasonal vegetables to the extent possible, and the same goes with fruits, so the students can try it all. Plus, while they’re serving it, the children are learning about it in the classroom to put the pieces together. Impressive really.

Nitobe Bunka Gakuen-School lunchtime
Mealtimes become an educational experience too. Source: Supplied

The Importance of Nutritional Education

The Japanese model of nutrition education is wonderful, and something I think we can all learn from. I really wish they had this type of education in our schools here in Australia! Teaching children about healthy eating from a young age fosters lifelong healthy habits, that are so crucial.

  1. Informed Choices: Children learn to make smart dietary decisions.
  2. Healthy Habits: Early education leads to lifelong healthy eating practices.
  3. Reduced Health Issues: Educated children are less likely to encounter diet-related health problems later in life.
  4. Cultural Shift: Emphasising nutrition can lead to a broader societal shift towards healthier eating habits.

Yakult is not just a Japanese favourite, either!

Sold in over 40 countries around the globe, with approximately 40 million bottles consumed EVERY DAY worldwide, Yakult is the only product to contain the unique probiotic bacteria Lacticaseibacillus paracasei Shirota strain or LcS.

The LcS in Yakult is scientifically proven to survive the journey through our gastric juices to reach the small intestine alive, altering and improving digestive balance and intestinal health.

Children drinking Yakult in Japan
A part of everyday life, Yakult’s benefits are astounding. Source: Supplied

The company’s philosophy centres on three main principles:

  1. PREVENTION: Focusing on preventing health issues before they arise.
  2. HEALTHY GUT, HEALTHY LIFE: Maintaining a healthy intestinal tract can lead to a longer, healthier life.
  3. AFFORDABLE HEALTH: Ensuring good health is accessible to everyone, not a luxury.

Yakult is rich in probiotics that support gut health and also:

  • Fight Bad Bacteria: Helps reduce harmful bacteria in your gut.
  • Boost Immunity: Strengthens your body’s natural defences.
  • Promote Gut Health: Keeps your digestion on track.
  • Has No Side Effects: Unlike some medications, Yakult is side effect-free.
Did you know our intestines contain about 100 trillion bacteria, across about 1000 species? These microbes are crucial for digestion and overall health.

Yakult’s five core priorities aim to make the product available to people of all ages.

  1. Reach the intestines alive: The probiotics must be alive to be effective.
  2. Safety: It’s safe for consumption by everyone.
  3. Affordability: Priced to be accessible to all.
  4. Reliable Results: Supported by over 80 years of research on safe and effective use.
  5. Ease of Consumption: Simple to incorporate into your daily diet.

Another Fascinating Japanese Discovery – the Yakult Ladies!

Since 1963, the Yakult Lady System has been a unique and iconic part of Japanese culture. Offering door-to-door delivery to homes and businesses across Japan, this system was introduced as part of Yakult’s emphasis on ‘sincerity’ and ‘harmony among people’.

It’s been a cornerstone of the company’s mission to bring health & happiness to communities.

The Role of Yakult Ladies in Japan

Yakult Ladies are more than just delivery staff; they are the face of the company, and building really strong, reliable relationships with their customers. We joined them for a morning shift to see first hand just what happens when the Yakult Ladies ‘hit the streets’ and it was nothing short of fascinating!

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In the 1960s, the Yakult Lady System was one of the first flexible working opportunities for women in Japan. Today, there are 32,709 Yakult Ladies working across the country, based out of 2,390 sales centres. These centres often include daycare facilities, ensuring that Yakult Ladies can work knowing their children are well looked after.

Each Yakult Lady prepares the products she delivers each day and then delivers it to her customers using various modes of transport including cars (45%), motorbikes (32%), bicycles (18%), and on foot (5%).

Yakult ladies in Japan
Source: Supplied

Japan embraces nutrition and leads the way

Japan’s integration of nutrition into daily life in the classroom is really impressive. Not only does it make sure that children grow up understanding the importance of a balanced diet, it also demonstrates with the widespread use of Yakult that they’re taking their commitment to gut health seriously.

As we strive to enhance our own health and that of our children, there’s much we can learn from the Japanese approach. Let’s take inspiration from Japan and start making nutrition a top priority for our families!

Belinda travelled to Japan as a guest of Yakult. Find out more about Yakult here and see some of the ways to use it in everyday cooking here.

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Avatar of Belinda Jennings

Belinda's a passionate advocate for community and connection. As the founder of the Mum Central Network she’s committed to celebrating the journey that is Australian parenthood. Mum to two cheeky boys, and wife to her superstar husband, they live a busy but crazy lifestyle in Adelaide. Great conversation, close friends and good chocolate are her chosen weapons for daily survival. Oh, and bubbles. Champagne is key.

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