The Meal Deal : They should be eaten, not skipped. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, that is. And planning them isn't as tough as you may think. : Recharge in the Afternoon

Do you skip lunch to plow through a backlog of faxes and e-mails? Or wolf down a fast bite from the office vending machine so you can catch up on your voice mail? There's no question that American workers are swamped.

Despite advanced technology and the lightning speed of today's communications, Americans are working more hours, not fewer. And the typical lunch "hour" has dwindled to about half that amount. But skipping or skimping on lunch to stay ahead of the game can backfire by making you less productive. When you skip meals, it's tougher to concentrate and solve problems, and you're more likely to feel fatigued. Plus, you're shortchanging yourself on good nutrition, a nonnegotiable for peak performance.

The solution? Brown-bag a delicious, nutritious power lunch to fuel you through a hectic afternoon of meetings and deadlines. Don't stress! Packing a lunch doesn't take a lot of time and saves money too. And if you're among the 50% of Americans who eat while working, desktop dining can boost productivity if you use the time saved to run noontime errands, recharge with a rejuvenating walk or workout, or simply savor some quiet time with a book.

The basic building blocks of a power lunch are carbohydrates from grains; vegetables and fruits for ready energy; some protein from lean meats, poultry, fish, cheese, yogurt, beans or nuts to stay alert; and a bit of fat to feel satisfied longer. Other than that, anything goes.

Try these tips to create your own power lunch:

* Assemble sublime sandwiches. Sandwiches are quick to make, but don't get stuck in a ham-on-rye rut. Try new combinations like lean roast beef, spicy arugula and zingy Dijon mustard on a sesame bagel, or reduced-fat provolone cheese and roasted red peppers on foccacia bread. On Sundays, make sandwiches (without condiments), wrap well and freeze. Pack sandwich toppers such as lettuce, tomato and sprouts into resealable plastic bags to add along with mustard or light mayo right before eating.

* Get exotic. Buy prepared hummus (chick pea dip) in fun flavors, such as sun-dried tomato and black olive. For dipping, bring whole wheat pita bread and plastic bags filled with baby carrots, red pepper strips, zucchini rounds and cauliflower buds. Or create a continental desktop picnic of reduced-fat cheddar cheese cubes, a mini-baguette, red-ripe cherry tomatoes and a cluster of grapes.

* Make meals with a mission--plan on leftovers. Sometimes tonight's dinner is even better tomorrow hot from the office microwave. Make big batches of chunky chili, hearty stew or thick bean and vegetable soup. Portion out individual servings and refrigerate or freeze. Pair them with whole-grain rolls, crunchy bread sticks or whole grain crackers.

* Think about your drink. Maximize nutrition by choosing fat-free milk for calcium, orange juice for vitamin C and folic acid, or vegetable juice for vitamins A and C. Bring your own cartons or cans from home or purchase from the office vending machine.

* Play it safe. Never keep perishables such as meat, poultry and dairy products at room temperature for more than two hours. If your office has a refrigerator, stow your lunch there as soon as you arrive. If not, keep it cool by using an insulated lunch bag with a reusable freeze-pack. A frozen sandwich, container of yogurt or juice box works, too, and will thaw out by lunch time.

* Keep emergency rations. Sometimes you don't have a moment to even think about packing a lunch. For just such situations, stock a desk drawer with fixings for a fast meal. A jar of peanut butter, small cans of tuna, dehydrated soup cups, crackers, bread sticks, flavored rice cakes, pop-top puddings and canned fruit, dried fruit and juice boxes are just a few nonperishables you can fall back on. (Bonus: A small late-afternoon snack from your stash keeps energy from flagging and helps prevent "automatic pilot" eating that can happen when you arrive home starving.)


Diane Quagliani is a registered dietitian, manager of nutrition communications for Burson-Marsteller and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Assn.


Minimal Assembly Required

When lunch prep time is tight, make sure your kitchen is stocked with options for grab-and-go meals like these:

* Individually wrapped string cheese, a small bag of pretzels and an apple.

* A mini-can of tuna, a packet of crackers and an orange.

* A carton of low-fat yogurt, graham crackers and a banana.

Need something more exciting for dessert than the standard apple, orange or banana? Try tangerines, peaches, plums, cherries, grapes or strawberries. Or toss in a couple of small chocolate chip cookies or a snack-size candy bar.

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