What comes to mind when you think of school lunch? Here in the U.S., it's probably memories of sitting around with your friends eating grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup or Friday Pizza Day. But as we travel the world looking for new flavor inspiration, we’ve come to see that school lunches can be a fascinating way to get to know a country’s culture in a more personal way.
Today we’ll explore some lunch traditions from beyond our borders: meals.
First, we travel to the ancestral home of mochi, Japan. In Japan, lunch is treated less as a break, and more as a class on food and community. Meals are designed to be nutritious and teach students about what they should be putting in their bodies. A lunch consists of rice; a main dish(typically fish); vegetables; a soup, like miso soup; and a carton of milk.
In Japan, there is no lunch staff. Instead, students are served by their classmates, who take turns helping out. In fact, there are no janitors in most schools either: students are expected to clean up after themselves and take care of their cafeteria, which helps to instill a sense of responsibility and communal self-reliance.
In France, where food is truly an art form, lunches rise to a whole new level -- think Preschoolers being served roasted guinea fowl, for example. School lunch isn’t just one course either. Typically, the meal is served to students while sitting down around the table, like at a restaurant. In fact, the French often call the cafeteria the “restaurant scolaire.”
In classic French fashion, the meal starts with a salad followed by bread, soft cheeses, and fruit. Next is the main course, which can vary from another salad to a decadent entree like salmon in lemon roux sauce with couscous. Last, but not least, dessert, like vanilla flan or apple cake.
This singular focus on quality isn’t just borne of French food culture, but codified in government mandates. For example, the French government has outlawed flavored milk at lunch, and sets a limit on the number of times fried food can be served in a year.
The French word “la commensalité,” means the act of socializing while eating together in a group. This aspect of dining is incredibly important and is considered as important as the food itself. So in France, lunch is where students are expected and encouraged to socialize.
Finally, we go to Israel, which has a much different approach to school lunch -- or rather, school breakfast. Israel prides itself on academic excellence. Students here spend more days in school per year than anywhere else in the world and as a result, things like school lunch are less of a priority.
Students go to school 6 days a week, but each school day is shorter than in the US, ending between noon and 2:00 PM. So there rather than a scheduled lunch time, students enjoy a snack break at 10:00 AM. In most schools lunch isn't provided, so students’ parents pack something to eat. While what students bring isn’t regulated by the government, they are encouraged to bring a sandwich, vegetable, and fruit every day. And teachers are known to talk to parents who send their kids in with unhealthy or innutritious meals.
Because of the time of day, and Mediterranean diet of Israel, the typical Isreali school “lunch” is quite light (especially compared to France). It might consist of something like half of a sandwich with cheese, and some baby carrots or cucumbers.