I’m a mom living in Japan, home to the world’s healthiest babies—4 things Japanese parents do differently

In 1896, pioneering physician and pharmacist Sagen Ishizuka created a Japanese philosophy called “shokuiku.” It comes from two words meaning “eat” and “grow.”

Shokuiku urges parents and schools to teach children where their food comes from and how it affects our minds and bodies. This concept has become an important part of Japanese culture, and it is a big reason why we are home to some of the healthiest children in the world.

According to UNICEF, among the 41 developed countries of the European Union and the OECD, Japan is the only country where less than one in five children is overweight.

As a mother raising a young daughter in Japan, here’s what Japanese parents do differently to raise happy and adventurous eaters:

Japanese doctors often encourage expectant mothers to stick to a balanced eating style called “ichijū-sansai.” It centers around a bowl of rice and miso soup, accompanied by a protein-focused meal, and two sides of vegetables (such as seaweed or mushrooms) for adequate vitamins, minerals and fiber.

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As children grow, they begin to learn about healthy eating habits. In 2005, the government passed the Shokuiku Basic Law to promote shokuiku.

Some preschools have children harvest vegetables to eat for lunch, while in elementary school, they learn about farms that produce vegetables, fish and other foods.

More than 95% of elementary and junior high schools in Japan have a school lunch system. Meals are planned by nutritionists, and students take an active part in the lunch service process.

While many preschools also provide lunch, homemade bento lunches can play an important role in promoting shokuiku.

My daughter’s kindergarten teacher asked her students to discuss what was in each other’s bento boxes. It makes lunch fun, and kids are encouraged to try new foods — or even express their dislike for certain foods — when they see them in their friends’ bento boxes.

My daughter’s bento lunch: sweet potato rice balls, hamburger steak, sausage, boiled broccoli, cherry tomatoes, omelet, pineapple and barley tea

Photo: Yuko Tamura

Choosing bento lunches over fast food also allows children to get a consistent serving of seasonal vegetables and fruits, while avoiding foods high in fat and food additives. Meals are often made from local, fresh ingredients, such as baked cod with sweet corn and bok choy, served with minestrone soup and a carton of milk.

I find that preparing simple homemade pickles and freezing other nutritious vegetables and fruits in batches makes my everyday cooking easier.

When my daughter started kindergarten, I struggled at first with some of the school’s rules – no snacks high in sugar or fat, such as chips and cookies, or caffeine.

But little tricks, like keeping a reserve of portioned meals, ensure that I can prepare nutritious lunches for him, even when fresh produce is in short supply at home.

I did not restrict my daughter’s access to fruit juices and the occasional shake. But in his words, soda is “yucky,” so I’m in luck there.

Earlier, I introduced him to barley tea, which is full of minerals without caffeine. It’s a popular choice among Japanese people of all ages, and a great alternative to sweet teas and flavored store-bought drinks. It helps you reduce your daily calorie intake, too.

Another way I implement shokuiku at home is to make smoothies with fresh fruit and yogurt with my daughter. We talked about how the fruit grew and where it came from. Experiences like these will carry his healthy eating habits now well into his future.

Yuko Tamura a cultural translator, editor-in-chief of Japanand frequent bilingual contributor to The Japan Times. He holds a master’s degree in International Business Administration. Follow his work at Medium and X in @yutranslates.

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