School Lunch Can Be Delicious. Just Look To These Countries.

Fair warning: The following examples will give you FOMO on behalf of your kid.

Originally Published: 
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2023 Back To School Issue

If I could rely on my kids eating a free school lunch every day of the week, I would. Food prices are through the roof, and, honestly, there are days I just don't have the time or energy to pack homemade lunches. I know for a fact that I’m not alone in this. But the thing is, my kids hate the food served at school, and I can understand why.

Sure, U.S. public school lunches have improved ~somewhat~ since I was a kid — aka back in the ‘80s when the Reagan administration cut federal school lunch spending by $1.5 billion and tried to pass off ketchup as a vegetable.

Still, when my kids entered elementary school, I was a bit surprised to discover the practically nutrition-less main entrees of grilled “cheese” sandwiches and hotdogs made of unidentifiable ingredients that regularly appeared on my childhood lunch trays hadn’t gone anywhere.

Come to think of it, at least the ones I ate weren’t packaged, microwaved, and served in plastic, as many are today.

School Lunches Around The Globe

While desperately searching my kids’ monthly school meal menu in the hopes of finding something at least marginally nutritious I could convince them to eat, I couldn’t help but wonder what school lunches in different countries looked like. After chatting with a few parents outside of the U.S., I found a few stellar examples of school nutrition programs — and some that are altogether lacking in that department.

Canada, Mexico, and Argentina are among the countries that typically do not serve a midday school meal. For the latter two, this can primarily be attributed to the traditional school day schedule. Children often attend either a morning or afternoon school shift, giving them the opportunity to eat lunch at home. Lunch at home might sound great, but for families experiencing food insecurity, this shortfall can lead to detrimental effects on children’s nutritional health (not to mention added stress on parents to provide an additional meal).

Since it’s a fact that proper nutrition contributes to better academic success, it came as little surprise to find that some of the countries offering the healthiest school meals to students are also those that rank among the best educational systems.

Even though I didn’t seek out the following examples based on academic performance statistics, I wasn’t shocked that — after putting out the word about my search — parents from these countries eagerly came forward with their insights.

Not only did they share with me the typical meals their children get served at school on any given day of instruction, but they also proudly shared that part of the reason their countries offer some of the healthiest lunches in the world is that school nutrition policies are treated as a priority and adhere to strict criteria that go well beyond just nutrition. I think we can all agree that’s something the U.S. needs some serious catching up on.


“Children get meals that are cooked from scratch. And there are no soda or snack machines.” – Thomas N.

Examples of typical meal offerings:

  • Freshly made soup
  • Chicken or meat with rice or potatoes, fish (on Fridays), and a side of vegetables
  • Fresh fruit and yogurt
  • Ice cream, pudding, cookies for dessert (on Fridays)
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“Finland has provided free meals to all students since 1948. At the time, the country was extremely poor, and it was a way to make sure everyone got fed. Nowadays, I am struck by how the program is an example of equity in action. Everyone eats the same things, together. It continues through high school, and even university students (and teachers!) are offered high quality and extremely subsidized warm meals on campus.” – Sage B.

Examples of typical meal offerings:

  • (Buffet style) Finnish dishes, including fish soup, gratins with fish or meat, sausage and potato hash (pyttipanna in Swedish), meatballs and mashed potatoes, and rye bread with butter
  • Fresh vegetables, salads, and fruits
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“School lunches are mandatory [unless there are extreme allergies]; there is no option for packed lunch. All schools within a particular locality have the same lunches. As I understand it, menus are planned monthly, and the aim is to ensure diversity. Some months have a “theme,” for example, to use as many ingredients that can be sourced [locally]. I’m British, married to a French man, and it surprised me at first that dessert is a regular feature of school lunches. Today, for example, is chocolate mousse. Yesterday was strawberries and cream. I’ve come to see this as a positive thing — sweet foods are offered as one part of a balanced, nutritious meal, and they are not put on a pedestal by having them only on ‘special occasions.’” – Gina D.

“To fully understand why French school lunches rank amongst the healthiest in the world, it is necessary to understand the role of food in French culture and the time-tested unwritten ‘rules’ of French society. The French are world-known for their love of great food and wine, but a deeper discussion about eating in France is more than simply food. Eating is about cultivation, choices, cooking, tasting, and enjoyment; it is about sharing, generosity, diligence, respect, commitment to quality, tradition, community, culture, history, celebration, pride, family, friendship, and life.” – Rebeca Plantier, journalist and author of French School Lunch: Why delicious and nutritious cafeteria food is a national priority in France

Examples of typical meal offerings:

  • Fresh fish, lamb sausage, baked chicken, veal
  • Saffron rice, quinoa, pasta, fresh bread
  • Fresh vegetables, salads, and fruits
  • Yogurt, fresh cheeses
  • Variety of French desserts
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“I'm quite satisfied with the nutritional balance and some of the menu items that I can’t make at home. Menus are thought up by a nutritionist and include seasonally and locally produced meals with traditional Japanese, Western, Chinese, and Okinawan meals.” – Misu A.

Examples of typical meal offerings:

  • Fresh fish, grilled meats, and chicken
  • Rice
  • Soup
  • Fruits, vegetables, and sea plants
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Organizations Advocating for Change

The point of sharing these examples isn’t to shame or claim that all U.S. public school lunches are subpar compared to what other countries are serving. Rather, it’s to raise awareness of school nutrition programs that successfully provide nutritious — and often locally and seasonally sourced — meals to students in hopes that efforts to bring about even more positive changes to our programs can be made.

If you want to learn more about the people pushing to get more nutritious, well-balanced, and affordable school lunches on U.S. kids’ plates, the following organizations are a great place to start:

These groups can also point you in the right direction if you want to encourage local legislators to push for change.

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