In Japan, Healthy Eating Habits Start at School

Fumiko Ichimura is a nationally registered dietitian in Japan. She uses her knowledge about balanced meals in a primary school, where she makes the menus so that children grow healthy and learn to enjoy eating. I asked her about the effects of Japanese food on health, the changes in Japan’s eating habits, and teaching kids about nutrition.

The Traditional Japanese Diet and Recent Changes

Why did you decide to become a nutritionist?

Food is important because we need it to live, and it influences our health. By learning about nutrition, I thought that I could make my daily habits healthier and my family’s. At first, my main concern was the people close to me. 

What qualification do you need to be a nutritionist in Japan?

You need a nutritionist license. You can study for it at a university, a junior college, or a vocational school. I have studied regular courses at a university for four years. My university’s classes also allowed me to become a nationally registered dietitian, for which you need to sit a national exam. In my university, people can also apply for a nutrition teacher license if they want to, which is what I did.

[Author’s note: A nutritionist works with healthy people only, but a dietitian is allowed to work with sick individuals as well.]  

The traditional Japanese diet has a positive image in the rest of the world. People tend to think it is well balanced, good for their health, and allows people to stay thin and live longer. From your point of view, is this true?

Yes. I think one of the reasons the Japanese live longer is because the traditional diet is healthy. However, the salt intake is relatively high, so one needs to be careful about it. Also, I think this diet fits the Japanese morphology, but effects may vary on people from a different genetic heritage. The traditional Japanese diet may positively impact people worldwide, but the results will vary depending on your constitution, especially because of the high salt content.

What are the traditional Japanese foods that contain a lot of salt?

Tsukemono [Japanese pickles], for example. Also miso soup. The traditional dishes for the New Year, called osechi ryori, also contain a lot of salt to keep the food longer.

A table on which are bowls and plates containing fish, rice, soup and pickles
In the traditional Japanese diet, miso soup (right) and tsukemono (left) contain a lot of salt.

I would like to ask you about the changes in the Japanese people’s diet. I recently interviewed a specialist studying the fishing industry, and he told me that the Japanese used to eat a lot of fish, but nowadays they eat mainly meat. What changes do you witness?

It is true. The Japanese eat less fish and more meat. They also consume less rice and instead, eat bread and all sorts of noodles. 

Thus, the number of people with lifestyle-related diseases increases [this category includes heart diseases, diabetes, obesity, and more]. The number of cancers is also increasing.

Thinking 190 School Meals a Year

You are involved in making school meals. What are you exactly doing?

I think of menus and make sure they fit the required nutritional values for the kids. It represents 190 meals a year, served to 2,200 people each time ! 

On top of this, I am the one who orders and takes care of the ingredients’ stocks. I also give instructions to the cooks on how to prepare the food. There are human and technical limitations in how much food can be prepared while respecting hygiene rules, so I have to consider it. For example, I must be careful not to give them too many things to cut.

Finally, the school lunchtime is also when I teach the kids about food.

Someone cooking large quantities of vegetables in a pot so huge a person could sit inside
One of the school cooks following Ms. Ichimura’s instructions.

I have heard that more and more Japanese kids have allergies. How do you integrate this when making the menus?

One way to deal with it is to make a dish that can be eaten by all kids by avoiding certain ingredients. For example, if there are kids who are allergic to wheat, we can use rice flour instead of wheat flour. If there are kids who are allergic to eggs, we can use non-egg mayonnaise. Another way is to choose the timing when to integrate some ingredients. For example, we can give allergic kids vegetable soup, and after that, add eggs in the soup for the kids who are not allergic.

Are there also changes regarding how Japanese kids eat?

Yes. Japanese kids today eat less home-cooked meals. Some kids do not eat breakfast, and some eat alone because their parents are busy working. They are old enough to put ready-to-eat meals in the microwave, sometimes fast food.

Some kids tend to be too thin, and others are overweight. Either way, we see an increase in kids with lifestyle-related diseases, even though they are very young. Some may develop diabetes once they are older. Kids who are too thin tend to be anemic, and overweight ones have atherosclerosis [fat in the arteries].

Does it mean that it is not only what we eat but also how we eat that is important for the kids?

Yes. By eating alone, you cannot learn proper eating manners or learn about food culture. Since kids cannot know about it at home, parents rely more on the school for this.

Teaching About Balanced Meals and Food Culture

When you are teaching kids, what is the thing you especially want to transmit to them?

The thing I am thinking of when I make the menus is teaching kids about the Japanese food culture since they do not eat much traditional Japanese food at home. I also try to make them discover traditional food from all regions of Japan, as well as dishes from other countries—for example, French pot-au-feu. I try to use seasonal products and seasonal dishes in the menus as much as possible.

Also, I would like the kids to imagine their school meals when they think about what a well-balanced meal should include. I am trying to make kids discover the fun side of food through variety while teaching them about nutrition.

A meal made with rice, meat, vegetables and a soup of vegetables
A typical school meal thought by Ms. Ichimura

Some videos on social media are popular with foreign audiences. They show Japanese kids cleaning their classrooms and serving food to each other for school meals. Is it the same in the school you are working with?

In my school, kids have “lunch duty,” too. The food prepared by the cooks arrives in huge pots, and the kids who are on lunch duty for the week serve the other kids. It is an excellent opportunity for them to learn how to share things and to learn about caring for others.

Kids also learn about cooking in school. For example, they grow rice or vegetables and learn how to cook them. Last year, kids in my school learned how to make mochi.

What food do Japanese kids tend to dislike? Are there some foods that are harder to make them eat?

Kids often eat sushi or sashimi at home, but not grilled fish, so they tend not to like them very much. They also do not like vegetables like eggplants or green peppers. 

As for dishes themselves, they do not like stewed food, hijiki [a sort of seaweed], kinpira gobo [a dish made with burdock root], umeboshi [salted marinated plum], or pickled radish. 

Some kids tend to reject food they tasted but did not like, for example, bitter vegetables like green peppers. However, when encouraged to try again, they realize they can eat them, and after some time, they become able to eat all sorts of things. Kids also influence each other. Seeing other kids making an effort to eat everything, or hearing them say it is good, is also a positive influence. 

When kids do not want to eat something, it is better to encourage them to have at least one bite. It may not seem much, but if you praise them for making an effort for this single bite, they get more confidence and will be more open to eating various things. 

Could you please give an example of a well-balanced meal for kids?

For traditional Japanese meals, it would be what we call “ichiju-sansai“: rice, one main dish, two side dishes using vegetables, and miso soup. It uses a variety of ingredients, and that is what makes it a balanced meal. For kids, who are growing up, I also add dairies.

For Western-style meals, too, there is bread or rice, a main ingredient like meat or fish, several vegetables, and soup. I am trying to make the kids think this kind of balance is evident.

A meal made with rice, vegetables and a soup of mushrooms and vegetables
One of the school meals thought by Ms. Ichimura. The pack on the upper right corner contains milk.

Does it happen that kids ask their parents to cook more balanced meals after learning about it in school?

Kids sometimes like what they eat so much that they say they want to make it at home. Also, during school visits, parents can eat the school meal, too. Some of them ask me for the recipes, and many appreciate how well balanced the meal is.

What are your objectives for the future?

I would like to give the kids more knowledge about balanced and healthy meals. I want to support them so that they will share this knowledge with their family members when they get bigger. I want the things they learn about nutrition during the six years they spend in primary school to help them in the future.

Going Back to Basics

Talking with Ms. Ichimura felt like an excellent follow-up to my recent interview with Masamichi and Sara from Higa Farm. As Masamichi and Sara use their farm to teach kids the value of food at its point of origin, Ms. Ichimura teaches them the importance of food at its final destination: in bowls and plates. 

It was interesting (and a bit worrying) to hear that in Japan, too, kids develop more health problems than they used to, due to changes in food habits. The legendary “healthy traditional Japanese diet” is becoming less and less of a reality in everyday Japanese life, especially for busy workers in the cities. 

As previously evoked by cram school teacher Mr. Goto, many Japanese kids end up alone at home after school because their parents work late. In such times, the roles of teachers and schools are not only about academic studies anymore, but also about necessary life skills such as eating correctly or socializing.

In this context, the 190 meals Ms. Ichimura imagines per year is crucial for the kids, their growth, and for the next generations, too. Hopefully, her activity can help “reverse” the current tendencies and encourage future Japanese generations to take care of their meals as they traditionally used to.

Born in France, I've been living in Japan since 2011. I'm curious about everything, and living in Japan has allowed me to expand my vision of the world through a broad range of new activities, experiences, and encounters. As a writer, what I love most is listening to people's personal stories and share them with our readers.

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