Guest blogger: Korean School Lunches

Hello all, I’m an American teaching ESL in Incheon, South Korea. I teach in a largish public elementary school, grades 3 through 6, and have about 650 students (30 students per class, 6 classes per grade, with a two-week rotating schedule. Ah!). 

I’ve been reading this blog for the past month, and I think it’s wonderful. I was inspired to ask Mrs. Q if I could write about how lunch is served in my school.

First, there is no cafeteria.  Lunch in served in the classroom with the homeroom teacher present.  Extra teachers, like me, eat lunch in the science room with the principal and vice principal.  Each lunch costs W2,180 ($1.95), and is prepared fresh by the kitchen staff.  There is usually nothing in plastic (I’ve only seen seaweed and yogurt drinks in plastic).

Each classroom has a cart with metal pots full of food, and metal chopsticks, spoons, and trays. The kitchen staff delivers the carts to each floor and then the students push their cart to the classroom.  Everyone eats lunch at the same time for 50 minutes.  This is also considered recess.  I should mention that classes are 40 minutes long with a 10 minute break between classes.  Students can do anything they want in that 10 minutes.  They usually run, scream, gossip, and wrestle in the hallways.  It’s 10 minutes of chaos.

The menu always consists of some form of rice, soup, meat, vegetable, kimchi, and sometimes fruit.  Purified water is available in the hallway (no milk, no knives!).  Surprisingly the food rarely gets cold.  And if they run out of food (the kimchi was particularly good that day), one student will run to the kitchen and get some more.  Leftover soup and food is dumped into a different pot.  I believe they use some of it for compost.  There is no ‘trash can’, and many times I’ve carried around a napkin all day trying to find a trash can!

Today’s lunch was rice with bits of corn, seaweed/tofu soup, rice cakes with spicy sauce, cabbage kimchi, and stir fried beef with carrots.

Sometimes teachers complain that the food isn’t spicy enough.  I asked why and they told me it’s because some students can’t handle spicy food.  Personally, I don’t like eating rice and kimchi every day, but nobody seems to complain about that.

Lastly, here is a picture of a student eating across from his homeroom teacher.  I know that some other public schools in Korea serve lunch in a cafeteria with each grade eating at a different time.  But even then they always have fresh food cooked by the kitchen staff.

If I had a choice I would choose the Korean meals over whatever Mrs. Q is eating.  The pizza posts alone make me cringe. 

**Thanks so much to our guest blogger from Korea! She can be reached at: almalibre3(AT)gmail(DOT)com**

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30 thoughts on “Guest blogger: Korean School Lunches

  1. That looks like a wonderful meal, I'd love to try it. Imagine how much time wouldn't be wasted shuttling kids to the cafeteria but bringing it to them. Hmmm…something to think about. I love those segmented metal trays. Wonder if I could pick any up somewhere?

    Seriously though, thanks Mrs. Q for including foreign school lunches in your blog. I think it's high time Americans look to other countries for inspiration not only on school lunches but also how to deal with trash! We don't have to be a disposable culture! No trash cans??? Amazing!

  2. She has a good point about variety. As Americans we expect to have a vastly different spread of food daily. While variety exists in restaurants, the non-western world seems particularly content to stick to local/regional diet for daily meals. Maybe something was just lost in translation as we tend to do the same from what I've seen on your blog. Chicken nuggets, pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs…all very American, no?

  3. I also wanted to comment earlier about food in plastic. As I have seen you have always food packed in plastic – i find it disgusting. Not to mention that the food is not freshly cooked in the school kitchen.

    Here in Slovenia we also have only freshly prepared food in the school's kitchen/canteen.

  4. It is awesome to get to learn about the difference between American lunches and other countries lunches! I would love to have some different cultures of food in our school cafeterias.

  5. I wish I had snapshots to show you of my children's lunches here in Italy. Generally they have 3 courses, a first of pasta and a second of meat and then a 'dessert' that is usually fruit but sometimes gelato (ice cream). They eat fresh foods that are seasonal and appropriate with the occasional special treat.

    When I taught in Japan, our lunches were much as the Korean system. I can't tell, but in our schools, the children learned to serve and clean up their own lunches from the metal carts. the students took turns serving but there was no "lunch lady" serving them.

  6. thanks for the insight! I think I'd rather have that than Mrs. Q's school lunches too!

  7. Only in U.S. is bought, prepackaged food cheaper than cooking from scratch. I don't understand that. I grew up in Croatia and our lunches were always freshly cooked, including compote that we had at least once a week (I think compote alone requires at least 2-3 hours of cooking). Also, a go to breakfast drink was usually tea (cooked on the spot). The lunches here completely baffle me.

  8. I like this blog you are doing Mrs.Q. i myself am a 8th grade student and i attend school in Orange County,North Carolina. Usually i pack my lunch but those days i forget are terrible. Today are lunch was chicken nuggets or pizza. The sides were a cup of lettuce,corn, and peaches(milk was the beverage). I must say the chicken was undercooked and the peaches were slimy goop. The lettuce was awful with its watered down ranch dressing.One thing I think would be cool if you were to get students like me to do a guest blog on their school's lunches.

    Good Luck with the blog,

  9. That looks really great! It reminds me of the year in high school when I was really tight with the French foreign exchange students. None of them would touch the school food (then again, neither did any of the rest of us) and so most times lunch was a bag of chips and a soda from the vending machines (there were about 12 machines total throughout the whole school and only 1 of them had bottled water…and it was flavored). One kid pointed out school vending machines were banned in much of France.

    By the end of the semester all the french students had gained between 15 and 20 lbs just from what they ate for lunch at school and what their host families cooked for dinner. People always think it should be the other way around, because the French are notorious for delicious food, baked breads, and treats, but no…it was OUR school lunch program and eating habits that hurt THEM.

    One of them told me that in France, school lunch is usually done in courses and consists of real ingredients cooked in the kitchen (grilled fish and lemon stewed carrots!!!) AND students get up to 2 hours to eat, compared to the typical 30-45 minutes here.

  10. And can I just say it's really great to see an actual student reading and responding to this blog!

    I totally agree…let some students do a guest blog. Nothing validates the point quite like hearing the students POV (and who can say no to getting kids interested and writing!)

  11. I'd love to see a guest blog talking about England pre-Jamie Oliver. I'd also really like to see if there is any place on Earth with worse school lunch than the US (excepting those nations which sadly can't afford one…)

  12. Those look so much better than the school lunches at my school. We have the same type of cardboard and plastic containers as Mrs. Q.'s school and the food just smells like cardboard. Not appetizing at all!

  13. I'm also a teacher in Korea. I teach at a girl's high school in Seoul. I can attest that the lunches here are delicious and (for the most part) very healthy. We eat basically the same as the guest blogger rice, soup, 2 vegetable or fruit dishes, a meat dish and kimchi. For those of you who don't know, kimchi is a slightly spicy fermented cabbage dish eaten at nearly every meal in Korea. It also promotes healthy digestion.

    To be honest Koreans don't eat a lot of western food at school, but that doesn't mean that they don't have variety. They do! 🙂

  14. Wow, I was just thinking about commenting in a seperate post about how the lunches in Korea are a lot more fresh, healthier, and eco-friendly in Korea than in the States. I live in Korea right now but unfortunately, I go to an American school that serves lunch similarly to how American lunches are served (since the audience they are catering to consists mainly of Americans and not Koreans) so I tend to bring my own lunch (trust me, my lunch is a lot more healthier!).

    I remember once watching a Korean documentary of a small school in the Korean countryside that grew its own vegatables and as recess/break time, the students would go out in the garden to pick the vegetables for their meals and it would be put into the school kitchen where during certain times of the week, the staff and students would prepare the meals with the fresh vegetables. I remember thinking how delicious and fresh the food looked compared to what I used to eat in my school cafeteria.

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  16. I work at a Korean middle school and the food tends to be quite good. We eat in the cafeteria though.

    Today was Soup(there are probably 500 different types of Korean), rice, kimchi, pork cutlet, chives salad and octopus mixed with some other fish products.

    I really enjoy my school lunch, but I have been to some other schools and institutions where the food was absolutely dire. Always freshly cooked though. No packages.

    I have to be honest and say the food at the posters school looks pretty bad. However, much better than the lunches in this blog.

  17. It's a bit similar to the Philippines… Only that, food were distributed in trays… I'll try to write about my memories of it next time… ^__^

    Good luck, Mrs. Q! Please take care of your health! ^__^

  18. I love the way that they distribute foods over there!! NO Trash? No Plastic?? AND freshly cooked food???? That is a wonderful idea on how we should start doing about school lunches. Why haven't we done it yet????

    Thanks Mrs.Q for adding the guest blogger!

  19. Anonymous said…

    This Is a Great look at School Lunches witch are disgusting.

    Just a thought, but maybe something constructive and spelled correctly would be a better comment to leave. Though I love how the comments like this are left by "anonymous".

    Anyhow…. I love this system. I home school my children so they get a better education (here the children are held to such low standards of education that I about died upon reading about it: I'm proud to say my daughter could count to 100 by 1s, 2s, 5s, and 10s by the end of her kindergarten year) and also to get better food and be overall healthier. I love that someone (Mrs Q) within the school system is working to raise awareness so that we can all band together to make a change for our children. And even more so that guest bloggers from other countries are coming forward to show us the differences and to show us how good things can be for our children (and in this case our environment). Thank you for sharing.

  20. Wow!! That is so amazing to see! That seriously sounds sooo nice and SO different from our country.

  21. This post, the one about the French school lunches, it seems that such a wealthy nation as the US is being left in the dust. We can buy our administrators expensive cars, but we can't feed our children fresh fruit.

  22. I like the look of the trays it's a way to be neat about things.But the food doesn't look very appetizing. Though I'm sure to those there it might be but not from my perspective.

  23. I was a Korean student…… and the lunches really are wonderful. But just like anywhere else, there are certain menus that student does NOT want to eat.
    As for disposing the food. In my high school, we had to serve ourselves, which meant getting what we wanted and how much we wanted. AND NOT LEFT OVERS. Yup. That was the deal.

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