Japan's mouthwatering school lunch program is a model for the rest of the world

Japanese school lunches aren't synonymous with "mystery meat," but rather, shokuiku. It means "food and nutrition education," and it's a vital part of the Japanese child's early education.

Beginning in elementary school, kids come to understand that what you put into your body matters a great deal in how you think and feel throughout the day — and how you go about your life.

As a country, Japan prioritizes school lunch. If parents can't front the $2.50 cost of a meal, free and reduced lunch programs help kids stay full.

"Japan's standpoint is that school lunches are a part of education," Masahiro Oji, a government director of school health education, told the Washington Post in 2013, "not a break from it."

Here's what it looks like to be one of the global leaders in lunchtime.

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 ​​​​​​​Japanese school lunches
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 ​​​​​​​Japanese school lunches

Lunchtime in Japanese primary schools is almost sacred. It isn't hurried or hasty — kids get the time just to sit and eat.

(Toru Hanai / Reuters)

Kids serve one another in an effort to reinforce a culture of self-sufficiency. In many schools, there is no janitor. Kids learn to pick up after themselves.

(Photo by Ko Sasaki)

Rice has been a staple for decades, but it wasn't until the 1970s that school lunches began to look mostly like what they do today.

(Yuriko Nakao / Reuters)

Lunch often comes with a main dish, rice, and a side soup. 

(Photo by Toshiyuki Aizawa/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The end result isn't just a satisfied student body, but one that learns responsibility and healthy eating habits. Japan's life expectancy is among the highest in the world, while it's rate of obesity is well below the global average.

(REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao)

With the end of any good meal comes one inevitability: naptime.

(Yuriko Nakao / Reuters)

Nursery school children wash their hands before eating lunch at Hinagiku nursery in Moriyama, western Japan May 27, 2008.  

(REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao)

Pupils at a primary school in Japan take turns to serve lunch to the others, circa 1955.

(Photo by Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images)

Japanese schoolchildren, whose families are 'water gypsies' working on the canals around Tokyo, eating their lunch which is half paid for by the government, circa 1955. Their shoes are lined up in front of the door.

(Photo by Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images)

Schoolchildren in Japan bring their own lunch to school and eat at their desks, circa 1955. One boy even has a kettle.

(Photo by Nakada/Three Lions/Getty Images)

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