Lunch-box Beauties
6 quick and healthy dishes to make noontime meals count

By Kimberly Lord Stewart
Photos by Pornchai Mittongtare

When you're at your desk and lunchtime hits, it's easy to succumb to the convenience of take-out food. But calorie-packed restaurant meals can leave you feeling sluggish. In contrast, bringing a lunch from home is less expensive and, if prepared with the right ingredients, more likely to leave you energized to finish the workday. Homemade lunches cost as little as $1 a day and $3 at the most. Take-out fare averages $5 to $8 per day. Made-from-scratch lunches can be easy to prepare, too, especially if you piggyback off the food you prepared for last night's dinner.

We've provided some easy, quick-to-prepare recipes to help you make this the month you start bringing a healthy lunch from home. But watch out: After seeing your unique midday treats, your friends at work may start asking you to share.

Turkey Salad with Dried Blueberries

Serves 4 / In this updated salad, dried blueberries add nutrients and flavor, and using buttermilk in the dressing keeps fat and calories down. Serve between whole-wheat or sunflower bread slices, and pack a handful of grapes or melon balls for a complete meal. To avoid soggy bread, store the salad separately until ready to eat.

2 cups cooked turkey, finely diced
2 tablespoons chopped onion
1/4 cup chopped celery
2 tablespoons dried blueberries, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped pecans
2 teaspoons chopped fresh tarragon, or 1/2 teaspoon dried
4 tablespoons low-fat buttermilk
2 tablespoons low-fat mayonnaise
Salt and pepper, to taste
Whole-grain bread

1. In a medium bowl, combine turkey, onion, celery, blueberries, pecans, and tarragon.

2. In a small bowl, mix buttermilk, mayonnaise, salt, and pepper. Combine with turkey mixture. Serve on bread.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 174 calories % fat calories: 40 Fat: 8g Saturated Fat: 2g Cholesterol: 49mg Carbohydrate: 22g Protein: 22g Fiber: 1g Sodium: 122mg

Southwestern Rice Bowl

Serves 1 / A tasty and price-conscious lunch. This is a homemade version of those expensive rice bowls sold in the frozen-food section. Baked tortilla chips or a warm tortilla round out the dish. For weekday efficiency, make more than one; they keep in the refrigerator for up to four days.

1-1/4 cups cooked brown rice
3/4 cup cooked, cubed chicken
1/4 cup aged dry Monterey Jack cheese, grated (or regular Monterey Jack)
1/2 cup canned black beans, drained
1/4 cup frozen or canned corn
1/4 cup finely chopped tomato or tomatillo
1/3 cup bottled salsa

1. In a microwave-safe bowl with a lid, layer ingredients in the order listed. Cover and microwave for 30-60 seconds, until hot.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 717 calories % fat calories: 21 Fat: 17g Saturated Fat: 7g Cholesterol: 113mg Carbohydrate: 85g Protein: 55g Fiber: 13g Sodium: 693mg

Couscous Salad with Papaya

Serves 4 / The large grains of Israeli, or moughrabiye, couscous are about the size of peppercorns and cook in two or three minutes. This vibrant and healthy vegetarian salad is a snap to put together in the morning or the night before. It also makes a refreshing side dish for grilled fish or chicken.

2 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons orange juice
1-1/2 tablespoons rice vinegar
Salt and pepper, to taste

3 cups water
1-1/2 cups Israeli couscous
1-1/2 cups papaya cubes
1 cup diced cucumber, seeds removed
2 tablespoons fresh basil leaves, cut into strips
2 tablespoons fresh mint leaves, cut into strips

1. Combine all dressing ingredients; set aside.

2. Bring water to a boil over high heat in a medium saucepan. Add couscous and reduce heat to a high simmer. Cook for 2 minutes, or until couscous is tender. Drain and rinse under cold water until cool.

3. In a medium bowl, mix papaya, cucumber, basil, and mint. Stir in couscous and add dressing. Blend gently.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 351 calories % fat calories: 19 Fat: 7g Saturated Fat: 1g Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 62g Protein: 9g Fiber: 5g Sodium: 11mg

Asian Beef Sandwich

Serves 2 / Leftover steak gets an added kick from lemongrass-flavored coleslaw and red chili sauce. Keep the meat, coleslaw, and bread separate until ready to serve. To save time, use preshredded cabbage and precut carrots for the coleslaw; it keeps in the refrigerator for up to five days.

Asian Coleslaw:
2 tablespoons low-fat mayonnaise
1/4 teaspoon dried lemongrass powder
1/2 teaspoon Asian chili sauce
1 teaspoon rice wine vinegar
1/2 cup shredded cabbage
1/2 cup julienned carrots

2 pieces whole-wheat pita bread, sliced in half
4 ounces cooked lean steak, thinly sliced

1. To make coleslaw, blend the mayonnaise, lemongrass, chili sauce, and rice wine vinegar. Add cabbage and carrots. Mix well. Store mixture separately until ready to assemble sandwiches.

2. Fill pita-bread halves with steak. Top with coleslaw and serve.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 327 calories % fat calories: 24 Fat: 9g Saturated Fat: 2g Cholesterol: 29mg Carbohydrate: 38g Protein: 23g Fiber: 6g Sodium: 507mg

Salmon Salad with Bagel Chips

Serves 2 / Consider this cocktail-party food for lunch. It's also good on a toasted bagel with cream cheese.

1 cup cooked salmon, fresh or canned
2 tablespoons small capers
2 tablespoons chopped red onion
2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
1 teaspoon chopped fresh dill
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
Toasted bagel chips

1. In a medium bowl, flake salmon with a fork. Add capers, onion, eggs, and dill. Stir gently.

2. In a small bowl, blend lemon juice and olive oil. Pour over salmon mixture. Stir until blended. Add salt and pepper and stir. Serve with bagel chips.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 392 calories % fat calories: 57 Fat: 25g Saturated Fat: 5g Cholesterol: 311mg Carbohydrate: 3g Protein: 37g Fiber: 1g Sodium: 393mg

Italian Bread Salad with Tofu

Serves 4 / Put this salad together in the morning and let it marinate until lunchtime. Use a crusty artisan-style bread, such as olive or rosemary; avoid soft bread, which will turn to mush.

1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon store-bought pesto

4 cups stale artisan-style bread, cut into large bite-size pieces
1 cup cherry tomatoes
1 cup pitted kalamata olives
4 ounces Italian-flavor baked tofu, cubed
2 ounces mozzarella cheese or ricotta salata, cubed
2 thin slices red onion
1 cup fresh basil leaves, torn

1. Combine all dressing ingredients in a jar and shake well. In a medium bowl or plastic container with lid, mix all salad ingredients. Pour dressing over salad and coat the bread well. Cover and marinate for 2-4 hours.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 361 calories % fat calories: 62 Fat: 25g Saturated Fat: 5g Cholesterol: 8mg Carbohydrate: 21g Protein: 14g Fiber: 2g Sodium: 835mg Kimberly Lord Stewart is a food writer and recipe developer. Most afternoons, she enjoys a homemade lunch on her front porch or at her favorite park.