Midday Meals
Peter Macdiarmid / Staff / Getty Images News / Getty Images Europe / Getty Images CC

What Kids Eat for Lunch Around the World

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Midday Meals
Peter Macdiarmid / Staff / Getty Images News / Getty Images Europe / Getty Images CC

Midday Meals

You can tell a lot about a culture by the way it eats, and the way it treats kids. For this list, we took a look at both factors, focusing on nations around the world and what their schoolchildren commonly eat for their midday meals, whether provided by the school or packed from home.

Note: School lunch guidelines may vary by region and school system.

Related: How School Lunches in America Have Changed Over the Decades

Argentina
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Argentina

School is taught in four-hour shifts during the morning or afternoon in Argentina, enabling many students to eat their most important meal of the day in their own households. Whether at home or packed for school, however, children can usually rely on their tight-knit, multi-generational family members to prepare them a home-cooked meal, usually a meat and starch with both Latin and European influence, like the examples of empanada or rice and breaded chicken Milanese reported by the AP.

Australia
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Australia

While Aussies are largely lunchbox people, Australian schools have indoor and outdoor cafeterias, called canteens, where students order from a menu of snacks and standard entrees like hot dogs, meat pies, pasta bakes, and sausage rolls. To counter childhood obesity, states like the New South Wales-based Healthy School Canteen Strategy forbids the sale of soft drinks and promotes other healthy habits such as limiting portion size.

Brazil
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Brazil

Brazil launched one of the world's oldest school feeding program in 1955, providing lunch to more than 43 million children. New 2009 guidelines limited processed foods and sugars and required schools to provide students a third of their daily nutritional requirements, as well as mandated a 30% minimum quota of organic products from local farmers, with some students even growing their own produce in onsite gardens. A balanced school lunch might include meat with vegetables, rice and beans, fresh-baked bread (sometimes incorporating other veggies or grains like beets or cassava), salad, banana, and tapioca crackers.

School Lunch
School Lunch by Anthony Albright (CC BY-SA)

China

It's hard to generalize about a nation as massive and diverse as China, but lunchtime for the nation is generally a rushed affair from noon to 1 p.m., with students and workers alike usually either packing a home-cooked meal or relying on the school/company canteens. Common meals include covered rice (topped with meat and veggies or your choice), beef noodle bowls, steamed bun or dumplings, hot soup, sweet pancakes, or some combination thereof. This series of photos gives a more nuanced representation of Chinese lunches with examples of specific children's home-prepared meals.

Colombia
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Colombia

As in many Spanish-speaking countries, lunch is considered the most important meal of the day in Colombia, with many schools ending classes before lunchtime so kids can enjoy it at home. While Colombia’s School Meal Program has been plagued by corruption and inefficiency in the past, things have changed, most dramatically in Bogota, where around 800,000 students receive daily delivered meals and snacks of fresh fruit, cereals, yogurt with granola, drinks and desserts. The reforms were introduced in the last few years by the country’s public procurement agency and ministry of education, who worked with Bogota’s education secretariat and other government agencies and businesses to drastically overhaul the system.

Cuba
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Cuba

During students' 90-minute lunch break, Cuban schools provide free lunches that usually feature rice, beans, a protein like chicken croquette or hard-boiled egg, a vegetable such as sliced tomato or taro root, and sometimes a dessert like arroz con leche (rice pudding). Children bring their own drinks and sometimes supplementary snacks or veggies from home. Sandwiches and empanadas also constitute common midday meals for many Cubans young and old.

England
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England

Growing concern over childhood obesity and lunchroom offerings like soda, chocolate, and fast foods that might contribute to it led the UK to tighten meal standards in the past decade. Vending machines have been banned by some districts and deep-fried items limited to no more than twice a week, instead favoring lean proteins like fish or chicken breast, corn, peas, potatoes, whole grain bread, fruit, and maybe a chocolate-covered Belgian waffle for dessert. When parents pack lunch, it's not unlike their American counterparts, consisting of chips, fruit, drink, and a sandwich – only with prawns or tuna more often than turkey and bologna.

Finnish Pea Soup
Finnish Pea Soup by Opalaisen (CC BY-SA)

Finland

The world's first country to offer free school meals, Finland continues its lunchtime leadership by offering healthy school lunches to suit dietary restrictions, whether health- or religion-related. Guidelines maintain a balanced proportion between veggies, protein, and starch, and some of the cafeteria fare kids are likely to enjoy are milk in cartons, potatoes, meatballs, salad, yogurt with muesli, and hernekeitto, a green pea soup with smoked pork, traditionally served on Thursdays with pancakes for dessert. A 2008 Finnish National Board of Education report noted the importance of a “clean and well-lit school canteen,” and went on to add that “tempting and mouthwatering presentation of food is also important,” and “freshly baked bread should be served as often as possible.”

France
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France

Unsurprisingly, France takes food seriously, even (and maybe even especially) when it comes to school lunches. Each lunch is typically comprised of a multicourse meal that usually includes a raw vegetable starter and dairy course in addition to a warm main meal with more vegetables, according to the government's school lunch guidelines, followed by a dessert, which is more often than not fresh fruit. Parents pay on a sliding scale for meals, and some schools contract out to vetted private caterers who help promote French children's early nutrition education and "taste training." However, that doesn't mean the occasional chicken nugget won't still find its way onto lunch trays.

Germany
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Germany

Like their neighbors in France, German primary schools often go above and beyond the U.S. standard for how gourmet and nutritious cafeteria food can be, honoring what's widely considered their most important meal of the day. While some even specialize in organic and vegetarian fare, one American living abroad catalogued the tasty-sounding offerings from a typical week at her daughter's "Krippe," or preschool: carrot and orange soup, penne Bolognese, stuffed potato pockets with broccoli and curry sauce, and egg noodles with cheese and vegetables.

Hungary
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Hungary

While children can also pack lunches, cafeterias in Hungary reportedly offer one meal each school day, usually made up of a soup, a main dish, and a side. The former could be a hearty meat stew or a cold fruit soup depending on the main dish, which might be spaghetti, baked beans with chicken, or a pasta sweetened with sugar and poppy seeds, cocoa powder, or chopped walnuts. Slices of bread are usually on hand with sides of pickled beets or other veggies, as well as fresh fruit and the occasional dessert like a candy bar or slice of cake.

India
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India

India has the largest state-sponsored lunch program in the world, feeding 120 million students per day with help from the Akshaya Patra Foundation, which sponsors some schools to the tune of about 1.4 million students. Whereas government-provided lunches have made students sick, APF's midday meals of lentil and veggie curries or mattar paneer (fresh cheese and peas) with chapati (unleavened bread) now incentivize rural and low-income families to keep children enrolled in classes. Other students enjoy home-cooked meals from their mothers that are delivered to them during school lunch hour by food-service employees known as "dabbawalla," or literally, person with a box.

Indonesia
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Indonesia

Students in this island-spanning Southeast Asian nation may bring their food from home or pay for it from the cafeteria or street food stalls parked right outside the school gates. This gives them access to fried treats like pancakes or crepes, as well as more nutritious options such as maize porridge or soup noodles with egg.

Israel
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Israel

Recent government regulations cut down on school offerings of sugary, fatty, or otherwise processed foods in Israel, but many, if not most, students seem to bring packed lunches from home or return home for lunch due to Israel’s shorter school-day schedule. Schools encourage packing a sandwich, vegetable, and fruit each day, and parents generally comply with items like hummus or peanut butter-filled flatbreads, avocado, bell pepper and tomato salads, sliced cucumbers, apples, and yogurt with muesli.

Italy
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Italy

Italy is another European nation pushing to make school lunch offerings not only healthier, but organic and reflective of local culinary traditions. So much so that the country recently banned students from bringing packed lunches from home. While some cafeteria entrées  — potato-filled pasta with tomato sauce, beef chops simmered in Chianti, ricotta cheese croquettes, tomato and mozzarella pasta, or scallops and sautéed zucchini — read like mouthwatering Mediterranean trattoria specialties, about 25% of Italian school canteens are not up to par

Japan
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Japan

In Japan, children have been known to help serve food to each other in the classroom and are typically accustomed to at least trying every food on their tray out of respect for its preparation. A traditional lunch is known as kyushoku and, sometimes served in bento boxes, usually consists of locally and seasonally sourced ingredients that result in meals such as hearty soups and stews, grilled fish, seasoned rice, and fried noodles. Each lunch contains a specific number of calories and costs about $2.50; a free and reduced lunch is available for those families who need it.

Palestine
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Palestine

The Associated Press reports that Palestinian children in the West Bank eat their lunches during recess in the schoolyards, since the schools lack other dining facilities. Their roundup on the subject showed elementary students eating pita sandwiches filled with olive oil, the herb-and-spice mixture za'atar, and, for one child, veggies, but a more complete Palestinian midday meal might include tabbouleh, cheese, rice, and meat pies.

The Philippines
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The Philippines

School cafeterias are rare in the Philippines, so students usually spend their hour lunch breaks either at home or dining in the shade of trees around the schoolyard. Lunches are usually wrapped in banana leaves and consist of rice (sometimes only that for poorer children) and dried fish.

Russia
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Russia

Since the federal government stopped funding school meals, Russia's various regions are left to draw up nutritional standards and provide students food on their own, resulting in disparities between wealthy and less wealthy regions that sometimes have troubling results. Children in some regions still receive free breakfasts featuring a tea or juice, salad, fruit and cheese, and possibly an entrée like porridge, sausage, or dumplings. The Kitchn notes that a typical Russian school lunch consists of “fish soup, baked fish, rice, brown bread, and a sugary juice.” 

South Africa
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South Africa

Many South African schools leave children to fend for themselves for lunch once classes end at 1:30. Those that do offer lunch do so through “tuck shops,” which offer largely unhealthy options. Some students bring peanut butter or other sandwiches from home while others rely on the townships' local vendors offering apples, bananas, corn chips, and fried or processed foods, which have been blamed for rising childhood obesity and "stunting" from malnutrition. Efforts are being made to improve the situation. The country’s National School Nutrition Programme recommends a balanced meal of proteins such as soya, fish, eggs, milk or beans and lentils, a fresh fruit and vegetable, and a carbohydrate/starch, and the Department of Education has noted the “need for nutrition education in the curriculum and health promoting school environments.”

A South Korean school lunch
A South Korean school lunch by 570cjk (CC BY-SA)

South Korea

South Korean students receive a nutritious lunch with lots of variation on a portioned steel tray, with the two largest sections usually reserved for seasoned rice and miso or other soup, and the three remaining for meat or seafood (like five-spice pork or stir-fried duck), veggies (often kimchi), and fruit or noodle salads. Public school teachers and students generally all eat the same meal at the same time at the same tables, enjoying fresh-made traditional foods as well as occasional western fare like pasta or hamburger steak.

Spain
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Spain

In Catalonia and other parts of Spain, parents pay for their children's school lunch meals, which are multi-course, made fresh onsite, and rotate daily. A typical week might see entrees like sea bass, pasta Bolognese, chickpea stew, paella, and omelets served alongside fresh fruit compote or yogurt for dessert. One expatriate from California to Barcelona wrote that "I quickly had to change my lunch sandwich packing habit to preparing three course meals" and that "packed lunches were brought with little bottles of olive oil to drizzle their salad or soup first course."

Sweden
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Sweden

Primary and secondary schools in Sweden are forbidden from charging for lunches. National Food Agency guidelines stipulate that balanced meals, served at 11 a.m., consist of one-third meat and fish, one-third pasta or rice, and the remainder fruit and vegetables. Some staple menu items include meatballs, poached cod with creamy egg-sauce, cabbage rolls, bread with margarine, baked potatoes, peas, salad, and skim milk.

Thailand
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Thailand

When they line up at lunchtime, Thai children show their gratitude for the food they receive with the standard "wai" greeting, a slight bow with one's hands pressed together. Almost no one brings food from home, so they usually all receive a soup as entrée, with a tray of chili sauce and other condiments to achieve one's preferred ratio of sweet, sour, and spicy. Students will then say a non-religious form of grace and eat at their desks in the classroom before those on lunch duty do their part to clean up and wash utensils.

USA
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United States

The U.S. has done a decent job of seeing that every child has something to eat for school lunch, but not always a good job of making sure that it's actually good for them. A 2008 analysis showed U.S. cafeterias offered too few fruits and vegetables outside of potatoes, which accounted for a third of what kids consumed, and too much in the way of sodium, saturated fats, and refined grains. While whole grain and vegetable access improved after the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, advocates and online campaigns like Fed Up have continued to both push for better nutritional standards and catalog lackluster options like mystery meat sloppy Joes, frozen brick-like pizza, and fish stick tacos.