Two decades ago, Lenten meals for some people meant 40 days of frozen fish sticks and macaroni and cheese. But a lot has happened in 20 years to make meatless menus preferable to meat-centered ones, including concerns for health and economy. Improved fish marketing allows people in Des Moines to enjoy grouper nearly as fresh as that in Ft. Lauderdale. Exposure to ethnic cuisines adds new dimensions to dried beans, nuts and grains.

Cheryl Bell, the dietitian in charge of Safeway supermarkets' national in-store nutrition project, says that "alternate sources of protein" are the things customers ask about most frequently. One of the free publications Safeway has distributed during this project focused on the use of dried beans and their combination with other foods to ensure maximum protein from the meal.

Timing is key to cooking dried beans. While lentils cook quickly (30 minutes or so), most beans require soaking overnight--an effortless step but one that requires planning. If planning is no problem, put the soaked beans in a crockery cooker while you're away for the day. Or use a pressure cooker to hasten cooking at dinner time.

On the other hand, many beans are sold cooked and canned, and the more ethnically oriented your neighborhood supermarket, the more choices you'll have. While canned beans are a little more expensive than dried ones, their preparation demands little energy from the cook or the power company.

Combine canned beans with seasonings to enhance their flavor, and while they stew you can prepare complementary protein sources--steam tortillas, simmer rice, heat hominy, toast sesame seeds or bake cornbread.

Such Lenten fare is not only easy to prepare, but the ingredients are readily available and require just a quick trip through your supermarket express lane, provided your kitchen is already stocked with flour, sugar, salt, pepper and butter and/or oil.

EXPRESS LANE LIST: canned chick peas (garbanzo beans), green peppers, jalapeno pepper, garlic, tomatoes, rice, zucchini, oregano. CHICK PEAS JALAPENOS (4 servings)

Use the liquid drained from chick peas and tomatoes to cook the rice, if desired. Use caution, and perhaps rubber gloves, when seeding and mincing the jalapeno. 3 tablespoons olive oil 2 green peppers, chopped 1 or 2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and minced 1 large clove garlic, minced 2 cups canned chick peas (garbanzo beans), drained 2 cups canned tomatoes, drained and chopped

Heat olive oil in skillet. Add chopped green pepper, jalapeno and garlic and cook until softened. Add chick peas and tomatoes. Cover and simmer 20 minutes. Serve over rice (preferably brown) or with steamed or fried corn tortillas. STEAMED ZUCCHINI (4 servings) 4 small zucchini 2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil 1 teaspoon dried oregano

Wash zucchini and slice about 1/2-inch thick. Heat olive or vegetable oil in a skillet. Add zucchini and oregano and stir to coat. Cover and steam until zucchini is barely tender, about 10 minutes or to taste.