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Oily Rag – Four is the Magic Number for School Lunches


 Read more Oily Rag articles by Frank and Muriel Newman 

School bells are ringing as students return for a new year, so it’s time to think about boxes and cheap and nourishing treats.
School lunchboxes have come a long way in recent years. Nowadays some of the trendier models have more partitions than a downtown Auckland apartment – unlike the one room models we used to have as kids.  This makes it easier to organise lunches into healthy food types.
Everyone has an opinion about school lunches and some more than one! The trick is to keep lunches cheap, nourishing and interesting. They need to be interesting so they don't end up in the rubbish bin or being bartered for something less nourishing (like a few marbles or the new craze of the day). One reader says she takes lunch "orders" on a Sunday, so she can prepare and stock up on what's missing early in the week.
As far as school lunches are concerned Oily Rag feedback indicates that the magic number is 4. That means at least four food types should be included: breads or cereal, fruit and vegetables, protein, and a drink.
Here are some tips:

  • Take bread slices from the freezer the night before so it's moist and fresh when the toppings are added in the morning.
  • Bake your own mini bread rolls. Freeze and remove the night before.
  • For the drink we use ice cool water. It costs nothing and is healthy. I partially fill their drink bottles and place them in the freezer over night. In the morning we just top up the bottle and it stays cool all day.
  • Buy juice in bulk to fill a drink bottle. Add some ice cubes to keep it cool. It's a lot cheaper than buying single serve juice boxes, and cuts down on waste.
  • Our favourite lunch box vegetable is carrots. We buy full-length carrots, peel and cut in quarters along the length.  Cherry tomatoes are another reader favourite.
  • Make a double batch of homemade muffins then pop in a wee bag or wrap in gladwrap and put in the freezer. Put them in the lunchbox frozen and by morning tea or lunch they're defrosted and taste fresh. I usually make banana ones – you can freeze bananas which are too 'past it' to eat, the outer goes black but the inside is fantastic for baking with. –  PK
  • Another reader says you can't go too far wrong if you stick to the one that have always worked. She recommends using lettuce as a base and adding marmite, cheese, tomato, or leftover meat like chicken pieces and ham.
  • As a lunch box treat we have homemade biscuits, small cakes, and muesli bars. They cost a fraction of the processed food.
  • Buy in season fruit like apples, banana, and stone fruit, or better still grow your own or swap fruits with friends and neighbours.
  • The best way to get dairy food into the lunch box with cheese, either on sandwiches or as pieces or slices.

There are endless possibilities, but the trick is to keep the costs down by avoiding the heavily processed and colourfully packaged foods. Share your favourite tips and ideas with others on the oily rag website,

* Frank and Muriel Newman are the authors of Living off the Smell of an Oily Rag in NZ. Readers can submit their oily rag tips on-line at The book is available from bookstores and online at