Growing up in Canada, the idea of “school lunch” was a foreign thing to me. I heard a lot about it, especially all the negative press our neighbours in America have gotten about their school lunches, but I have never experienced it. I’m sure someone in another part of Canada can tell you something different, but I ought to think it’s not such a common ordeal.
The first time I experienced Japanese school lunch was in my second ALT job; so in fact, even in Japan, different schools can vary whether they offer school lunches or not.
Schools with School Lunches
School lunches are most common in Elementary School. They will usually hire people from the local community as cooks for the school lunches. Elementary schools are usually equipped with their own kitchens, so they can prepare fresh meals for the students in house.
There is only one meal variation per day. All students and teachers eat the same food. There is rarely any choice in the matter, unless you have allergies, the kitchen will prepare those for students.
Schools will rotate between rice and bread as carbs, and other dishes will rotate day by day. Students will carry serving for the whole class into their classroom and serve it to the students. Some teachers will allow students to have smaller portions, while other teachers try to encourage their students to eat everything on their plates. If there is extra food, students are free to get seconds.
My experience with Elementary School lunches are very positive. They all look and taste very nutritious and healthy. The carbs tend to be quite heavy though, but it is quite common for teachers to pack away the rice and bread they can’t finish in small plastic bags (which they usually keep in their desks).
Schools with no School Lunches
In my first Japanese school (a Junior High School in Osaka), the school did not offer school lunches. Instead, the school outsourced a local restaurant/catering service to come in with a set number of daily specials. The school will take a tally of how many students want it every morning, then tell the catering service to come in with the number of sets by lunch time. The variety in the sets are usually rotated through the week, costing about 300-400 yen (not necessarily cheap by school lunch standards). Teachers were also welcomed to order through this service as well.
Alternatively, teachers have a similar system but the teachers have a wider range of restaurants to order from. A restaurant employee will show up with their metal delivery box, then return later to collect the utensils.
Students who don’t order the lunch usually have their parents prepare their lunch, or some students will purchase food from the convenience store before school.
Official Catering Service
My second Junior High School was the first time I experienced school lunches. They had a catering service set up through some official means, as all junior high schools in the city seem to receive the same reusable plastic boxes and the same menu (I taught in two JHS in the same city).
All students and teachers (who opt in for the lunch) receive the same amount in their boxes. There’s no room to have second servings. Teachers pay about 5000yen a month (if you eat it every day), paid in advance.
The variation of dishes change every day, and rotates through. But there is always one box of rice. Sometimes it’s (lukewarm) cutlet, sometimes it’s fish, pork or chicken with a side of vegetables. There’s sometimes a jelly cup for dessert. If you’re lucky, you might end up with curry.
(I say lucky because thsee boxes are quite notorious for being... not so appetizing - it’s so bad one of our semi-retired teachers used to come in with her own dishes to share with staff, and her cooking was something everyone in the staff room looked forward to)
Some schools have a cafeteria where students can purchase lunch. These usually only exist in high schools and/or private schools. The school will usually hire some people to man a kitchen that exists in the school to cook cafeteria style foods like soup noodles and rice dishes. Students have a choice in the meals they like, if they want to purchase. Otherwise, their family can prepare lunches for their children.