200 Calories Can Look Pretty Good

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Instead of settling for a bag of chips or a candy bar for an afternoon snack, imagine savoring a little Thai peanut chicken, hummus with cucumbers, or brie with fruit and crackers.

Doesn't sound like the average way to soothe your hunger pangs, does it?

Well, now it can be, thanks to Portions, a new line of mini-meals from the fast-food chain Au Bon Pain. Developed by executive chef Thomas John, these 14 dishes are meant to be eaten as snacks or paired with soup, a salad or a sandwich for a full meal. They range in price from $2.99 to $3.49 each.

John says he was inspired to create them by Japanese bento boxes. These classic wooden lunch trays serve meals in small compartments. Portions are small but flavor is large since you get to taste a wide range of food. John crafted 23 Portions to test before launching the line of 14 dishes in some stores in March.

During a recent tasting in our newsroom, all got rave reviews. Their varied flavors were fresh and satisfying. Small tomatoes were topped with Mediterranean tuna with capers, olives, parmesan cheese and parsley. A chickpea salad was flavored with a dressing of lemon juice, salt and pepper. Diced Granny Smith apples got a lift from blue cheese and cranberries.

In crafting the mini-meals, John says he focused foremost on the ingredients and portion size. So here's the surprise: When these dishes underwent nutritional analysis, they all clocked in at 200 calories or less.

Lunch portions have been so popular that John is now crafting breakfast Portions. He's testing quinoa oatmeal and quinoa muesli.

Prompted by customer request, he's also developing a new line: Portions desserts.

Who knows? There could soon be a way to have your (mini) piece of cake and eat it, too.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company