school lunches around the world (Japanese school lunch)

With school starting up soon, the thought of cafeteria lunches might conjure up images of droopy pizza slices, pale green vegetables, or scoops of some indiscernible casserole. Whether back-to-school season means more lunch prep for the kids, more money doled out for school lunches, or neither (just more traffic on school-adjacent blocks!), we can look to school lunches around the world for meal inspiration. Take a look at how these other countries do school lunch, and check out some recipe ideas to help create those flavors at home!

Italy

No better place to start than with the Italian word for bringing leftovers from home: the Schiscetta! Also known as Schiscia, this is the notion that you can prep something comforting, flavorful, and not-at-all boring from either last night’s leftovers, or improvised with fresh ingredients. Italy Food Culture lists these examples:

  • Couscous with vegetables and grilled chicken
  • Salad with tomatoes, tuna, and mozzarella
  • Pasta salad, served cold
  • Frittata
Italian Pasta Salad

Chowhound

Do Schiscetta the simple way with a pasta salad of artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, salami, and provolone. Easy to make, easy to transport to school or work! Get our recipe for Italian Pasta Salad.

Japan

According to The Japan Guy, “The typical Japanese school lunch consists of rice, some form of protein (fish, chicken, beef, etc.), vegetables, soup, and milk. Overall the meals are well-balanced.” With rice (or sometimes noodles) comes either a fish filet, meatballs, a chicken patty, a piece of baked fish, or some other protein. Salads might consist of spinach and corn, or potato, carrot, and sprout, or broccoli and corn, and more.

Quinoa Tabbouleh with Marinated Tuna, Shiitakes, and Bonito-Rosemary Aioli

Ed Anderson

Take this idea of balance, and try a meal that combines grains, protein, and vegetables with a sauce that ties everything together perfectly. Get the recipe for Quinoa Tabbouleh with Marinated Tuna, Shiitakes, and Bonito-Rosemary Aioli.

China

The Nanfang showcases different lunches Chinese children eat at school, at home, and at restaurants. At school, meal examples include “a spicy regional noodle dish with potatoes along with slices of cantaloupe,” “curried chicken, tomato and egg, seaweed soup, and watermelon,” and “steamed carrots, pork with a strong-textured reed-type vegetable, boiled vegetables, and steamed rice.”

for Stir-Fried Garlic Eggplant with Ground Pork

Clare Barboza

You can channel Chinese flavors with a dish featuring eggplant and ground pork, bolstered by aromatic ginger and garlic. Serve with rice and you have a hot meal akin to these school lunches of protein, cooked vegetables, and a grain-based side. Get the recipe for Stir-Fried Garlic Eggplant with Ground Pork.

Tanzania

When Bill Gates visited Tanzania, he took part in lunch with some primary school students. Though the meal was simple—red beans with tomatoes and onions, served on rice—Gates noted the greater importance of school meals for kids’ attendance, learning, and overall health. Since meat can be pricey, the bean protein of this meal augments the nutrients and energy provided by the vegetables and rice.

Wali Na Maharage (Tanzanian Rice and Beans)

Leah at Home

Try this recipe for Wali Na Maharage (Rice and Beans), which includes coconut milk and adds carrots, avocado, and a plantain for additional flavor complexity. Substitute vegetable broth for the chicken broth to make the dish vegan!

France

If the previous school lunches were inspiring, prepare to be impressed by what these Parisian kindergartners eat for lunch. Lentil salad? Brie? Salmon lasagna? Shepherd’s pie? Ratatouille? No, this isn’t the menu for that special anniversary dinner, nor for your milestone 40th birthday party. It’s what some 5-year-old children eat in France. But, instead of feeling schlubby, take queues from these meals and try some French flavors in your own cooking.

Lentil Salad with Goat Cheese Crostini

Chowhound

With goat cheese, protein-rich lentils, and that typical (and stereotypical) baguette, refresh your weekday lunch with our recipe for Lentil Salad with Goat Cheese Crostini. You’re just as good as those kindergartners, and you deserve a fresh, bright recipe that shows it!

Brazil

According to Pulitzer Center, Brazil requires 30 percent of meal ingredients to be sourced from local farms as part of its school feeding program. A lunch menu, like that of the Brasilia International School, incorporates such local ingredients into familiar-sounding dishes like lasagna, fajitas, chicken fingers, and beef stroganoff.

Brazilian Stroganoff

Cynthia Presser

Many of these dishes, however, have a Brazilian twist, like in this recipe for Brazilian Stroganoff. Instead of the flat European noodles we might associate with stroganoff, the Brazilian version is served with a side of white rice. Stop by a farmer’s market for the mushrooms and rosemary, or even the steak if you have a local meat vendor, like Mint Creek Farm that serves Chicago markets—whichever 30 percent of the meal is easiest to locally source in the manner of Brazil!

Greece

In Greece, school lunch menus are chock-full of vegetables. OliveTomato lists some example meals:

  • Green beans with tomato and feta
  • Peas with feta and lentils
  • Roasted chicken and vegetables
  • Beef and vegetables
  • Spinach pie
Greek Spinach Pie

Chowhound

Lunches have lots of greens, and are cooked in olive oil or tomato sauce. Pizza does make an occasional appearance, but only once every several months. You can prep a hearty, vegetable-centric dish like the Greeks do with our recipe for Spinach Pie, a quicker version of authentic spanakopita. Serve for dinner, and pack a slice for lunch the next day!

Spain

We get another sliceable, portable lunch item when we take a look at children’s lunches in Spain. A Meddeas Language Assistant describes her experience with school lunch in Madrid, detailing the “salty slabs of thinly sliced pork atop lettuce and tomatoes drowning in vinegar and olive oil,” the stew of “noodles, stewed chickpeas, garlicky cabbage, [and] various meats,” and the tortilla española—all meals ending with fresh fruit.

Spanish Tortilla with Burrata and Herbs

Half Baked Harvest

If you’ve never had a Spanish tortilla, you might be surprised to find out it’s more of an omelette, filled with potatoes. This recipe for Spanish Tortilla with Burrata and Herbs enhances the simple base with basil, dill, chives, and creamy burrata. Like the spinach pie, serve in the evening and reheat for a delicious lunch (Italian Schiscetta-style!)

India

We’ll finish our trip around the world with tiffins, originating from British India. The word refers to either the light meal itself, or the stainless steel carrier of multiple compartments which houses the meal. According to Happy Tiffin, a typical meal “consists of rice, dal, curry, vegetables…or spicy meats,” and Indian workers or schoolchildren would carry lunch for the day in these containers.

Daal Chaawal (Indian Lentil Soup and Rice)

The Tiffin Kitchen

The beauty of the tiffin is that you have an easy way to transport multiple parts of the meal—the wet portion can stay separate from the rice until you’re ready to eat, so that you’re not left with a soggy, mushy mess. Try this recipe for Daal-Chaawal, or Lentil Soup and Rice, and fill one tiffin compartment with the lentils and the other with rice until it’s time to combine for lunch.

If the yearly back-to-school feelings start to get you down, look to the rest of the world to refresh your meal routine. You might discover some easy, flavorful recipes that get you more excited about dinners and the subsequent leftovers for lunch—and there’s a good chance you’ll end up with a few more servings of vegetables, to boot!

Related Video: School Snacks Taste Test

Header image courtesy of Joyce Wan/Gaijin Pot.

Emily, a Chicago native (okay, okay, born and raised in the 'burbs), loves being able to bike to and from her job at a tech company. After hours, you can find her walking her rescue pup (he's a good boy), taking French classes (voulez-vous un macaron?), and thoroughly enjoying her city's excellent restaurants and bars. She lives for the Chopped-style thrill of creating the perfect meal from limited and oddball ingredients.
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