Real Bentos of Real Japanese Schoolkids
The internet really has a fetish for crazy, artistic bentos, don’t they? Seeing all those Totoros made of rice and pandas taking baths in scrambled eggs it’s easy to forget a packed lunch in a little bento box is a real lunch for lots of people. And, the reality is often kinda, well, processed. Every grocery store freezer section has a hearty number of freezer cases devoted to pre-made single-portion bento foods meant for children’s lunchboxes. They range from the comparatively healthy scrambled eggs and pasta, to deep fried meat and veggies.
Now, bentos aren’t usually an everyday thing for the munchkins. Schoolkids in Japan usually get a standardized, mandatory school lunch. Getting school lunch at the elementary level is not just a guaranteed well balanced hot meal, it’s part of the curriculum. Instead of lunch ladies, Japanese schools have school nutritionists who teach lessons about the nutritional value of the meals the school serves. Rotating groups of students in each classroom are assigned school lunch duty and have to serve the others the single, pre-planned meal each day. It’s a coordinated, well thought out method that probably has a lot to do with the low obesity rates in Japan compared to many other wealthy countries. As such, bentos are a special thing for a lot of elementary kids.
The following pictures are from two picnic days at two different schools in Saitama. I was so impressed with the ornate lunch sets that each kid had, despite seldom getting to use them, that I asked a ton of kids if I could take pictures. Some lunch boxes looked like this might be their first use. These picnics were school wide affairs meant to foster good relations between the different grade levels. From what I can tell, it worked wonders. Big and little kids sat and ate and played together. They swapped karaage fried chicken bits for mini sausages and complained about mom’s unwillingness to give them more sweets. Good times.