I can say with confidence that I’ve eaten a peanut butter sandwich (sans jelly) for 98% of school lunches until high school. I never bought school lunch unless it was the occasional pizza day. Even in elementary school, I was appalled by school food. Low quality chicken nuggets, fries, mystery meatloaf, and gross spaghetti that stains the Styrofoam plates, all smothered in condiments. Most students brought lunch packed with love from our mothers. Tuna, egg salad, Lunchables, Gushers, Fruit by the Foot, carrot sticks, apples, chocolate pudding, homemade cookies. Everyone was nourished differently. We’re all unique and special, as we’re taught in America. Lunchtime is not an exception.
Korean school lunch reflects Korean culture; everyone in the school eats the same lunch. Everyone. Principal included.
After teaching four classes to energetic students, you almost always work up a hefty appetite. At my main school, my co-workers and I go to the cafeteria and pick up a metal tray with five bowls engraved as well as metal chopsticks and a spoon. Usually, you plop kimchi in the top middle bowl. The other two bowls are for more side dishes (different kinds of kimchi, seaweed, bean sprouts, spinach, salad, potatoes, mushrooms, pickled sesame leaves, dumplings) and some kind of protein (eggs, meat, fish, tofu, fried shrimp). My favorite is when we get grilled fish, sometimes even a whole fish! Fish is never deboned, so I became learned to debone using chopsticks. The big bowl on the bottom left is for rice whether it be white, brown, or purple (technically black) rice or sometimes there’s noodles for carbs. The bowl on the right is for soup: seaweed soup, kimchi stew, eel soup (very delicious), duck soup, fish soup, rice cake soup, etc. Half of the time, there’s desert like tomatoes, apples, pears, watermelon, Korean melon, tangerines, yogurt, or rice cake. Sometimes, there’s Korean barbecue. Big leaves of different kinds of lettuce are provided to wrap up small pieces of meat, rice, spicy sauce, and whatever your heart desires into a wrap that you eat in one big bite.
As you can imagine, the variety and colors are astounding. It is safe to say that the students are getting a balanced meal to fuel their little brains for all the studying they’re about to do at school and academies. The whole tray is aesthetically pleasing and yes, it tastes as good as it looks! I have yet to be super disappointed. The teachers have their own buffet so we are able to pile on what we desire. I tend to be sparse with the rice and meat and pile on the vegetables. Other teacher will notice and comment about what you’re eating. They thought I absolutely lost my mind when I opted out of rice one day.
With all of the spicy and salty food, any normal person would be parched. Well, Koreans must be camels. There are no beverages served at lunch. Water fountains exist if you so desire, but rarely do I see teachers getting up for a sip. The logic is that drinking waters down the stomach acids necessary for breaking down food, so avoiding water is better for digestion. Low and behold, I found similar results when researching on my own. Despite the research, I still bring my own water bottle; I’m a thirsty girl, especially from sweating in my stuffy classroom in the middle of summer.
In America, the teachers enjoy their packed lunches in the teacher’s lounge, a little break from their pupils. Meanwhile, in Korea, the homeroom teachers sit at the same table as their students while the “special” teachers and administration sit at another table in the cafeteria. Students frantically wave hello to me and sometimes even ask for some of my food. Darn kids are always hungry.
When you’re full to satisfaction, scoop the food waste into your soup bowl and wait until the other teachers who you sat down with are finished. Everyone sort of gives each other a nod and gets up at the same time. It’s a Korean thing. Walk over to the food waste bin, drop in your food waste and try not to look at the nasty pile, and put your dishes in the proper bins for them to be washed and reused for the next day. There’s no waste at school lunch. I presume the food waste is composted. Love it.
Best of all, lunches are completely free for the students at my school. Teachers pay a small fee of about $2 for a balanced meal. Love it.
Since we are all in the cafeteria, I can observe the kids, even impossibly tiny first graders, proficiently using chopsticks and eating plenty of vegetables and spicy kimchi. Setting healthy habits early! Love it.
I don’t have my own photos of my school lunches, but here are some I found from good old Google.