(Jan. 21) Ah, for a reprieve from the breakfast-work-lunch-work-dinner-TV rut. It’s rare that customers get a chance to wander outside their three square meals.

Lead them out with a colorful creative brunch menu featuring a generous portion of healthful, colorful fruits and vegetables.

Brunch offers flexibility and variety, allowing you to make heartier breakfast entrees, says Holly Clegg, a Baton Rouge, La., cookbook author and spokeswoman for the Louisiana Sweet Potato Commission, Baton Rouge.

The value of produce for brunch goes beyond its flavor. It makes a great decorative arrangement in lieu of flowers, she adds.

Brunch adorns many a plate at Sarasota, Fla.-based First Watch Restaurants Inc., which operates 44 units. The company makes its business serving breakfast, brunch and lunch.

Fruits or vegetables appear on 90% to 95% of the menu items. “For every dollar spent on meat, we spend 80 cents on produce,” says Rod Hennig, director of operations for the eight restaurants in the Kansas City, Mo., area.

Produce adds a wealth of color for an absolutely vital presentation, he adds.

No matter the season, customers can order Floridian French toast piled high with strawberries, bananas and kiwi. A generous portion of the same fruits surrounds the tuna or chicken salad on the Fruity Chicken and Fruity Tuna plates.

OUTSIDE THE BRUNCH BOX

Brunch variety spills over into the way you serve it. It works well as a buffet occasion appealing to all ages, Clegg says.

Think of the fun ways you can use fruits in brunch smoothies in pitchers at the buffet bar with fruit on the side for decoration, she says.

Turn any basic muffin recipe into an upscale brunch item by adding raspberries or cranberries. Make a sweet potato muffin with cinnamon or walnuts, or make a chocolate zucchini bread, she suggests.

Bring on the fruit dips for breakfast. For one, combine lemon yogurt, almonds and a little orange juice, Clegg says.

Consider fruit salsa for a spicy egg topping. Combine peaches and strawberries or blueberries with red or green onions, cilantro and sugar.

Go Southwestern with salsa made of avocados, corn, green onions and tomato to top eggs.

She suggests fruit quesadillas with mangoes and brie or reduced-fat Monterey jack cheese or with apples and brie cheese.

For another nontraditional idea, she suggests shrimp, peppers and cheese grits as a brunch item. “Sauté the green peppers, tomatoes and shrimp and throw in some green onions when the shrimp is done. Serve it with cheese grits,” she says. To maximize the flavor, use chicken broth and milk rather than water in the grits.

IN THE AIR

Think of the brunch atmosphere you’d like to set, and use your menu to accomplish that.

Atmosphere is easy at the restaurant in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Guests not only are surrounded by art, on Sunday they also are entertained by music for the jazz brunch, says executive chef Tracey Hopkins.

Besides an omelet station, the brunch features the artist buffet table, where cooks display their seasonal creativity. In the fall the artist table featured hard squash marinated in orange juice, brown sugar and oil with a hint of orange zest — all roasted in the oven, he says.

The fruit salad combines pears and granny smith apples tossed with orange sections, walnuts and blue cheese with an apple cider dressing, he says.

For a unique pear dish, cooks roast pear chunks in brandy with sugar and toss in raw pears for contrast, he says.

The Grain House restaurant at the Olde Mill Inn in Basking Ridge, N.J., evokes an old country feeling. The goal of brunch is to offer comfort food and help people relax and enjoy the atmosphere and the company, says executive chef John Tomaszek.

Sunday brunch comfort food includes a seasonal fruit crisp and bread pudding with a fresh fruit sauce. It also features a stew with braised root vegetables, he says.

For a fruit sauce to cover blintzes, he might create a fresh mango puree and fold in blueberries or raspberries and cook it down with a little orange zest, he says.

The beef stew includes such braised root vegetables as turnips, carrots and sweet potatoes.

TIME FOR TRENDS

Keep your eye out for the popular vegetables and get them on your brunch menu. Spinach is in right now.

Easy Greek Spinach Squares require only three ingredients plus whatever seasonings you choose, and you have something that makes a nice presentation on a plate next to a toasted bagel, slice of ham or a bowl of fruit, says Burgundy Olivier, Lafayette, La., who wrote the cookbook, “I Love Spinach.”

To make the spinach squares, combine spinach, eggs and feta cheese plus salt and nutmeg or other seasonings and bake. Then cut into squares, circles or triangles.

She also suggests breakfast pizzas that begin with a dough of baking mix combined with milk, patted into circles and pinched around the rim. In a skillet brown sausage, mushrooms, spinach and sauce or herbal seasonings and arrange it in a circle on the dough, leaving a hole in the middle to crack a raw egg. Sprinkle mozzarella cheese on top and pop it in the oven. “The biscuit dough turns brown and the egg is sunny side up. It’s a wonderful brunch idea,” she says.

HASH IT OUT

Turn a common brunch component into something unique with an added vegetable to create a signature item. That’s what 5 Spot Café, Seattle, did with its corned beef hash. The restaurant, which is part of the Chow group of four Seattle restaurants, adds beets to the hash to come up with red flannel hash.

Roast the beets with corned beef, cube the beets, then mix in fried potatoes, shredded onions, green peppers and seasonings, says chef Chad Krause. Pan fry the mixture until it has a brown crust. The restaurant serves the red hash with eggs and fresh fruit, he says.

For another hash variation, Greg Westergreen, executive chef at Nicollet Island Inn Restaurant, Minneapolis, makes smoked chicken hash with bell peppers.

Quarter and brown baby red potatoes in butter and add green, red and yellow bell peppers, red onion, garlic and such herbs as parsley and thyme, he says. Dice smoked chicken breasts and stir it into the mix adding salt and pepper. It’s a very popular menu item on the brunch buffet .

EGGS ANYWAY YOU LIKE

Imagine the fruits and vegetables you can add to make something substantial and elegant out of traditional eggs.

For a variation on eggs Florentine, Ruth’s Diner in Salt Lake City sautés onions and mushrooms, adds a cream sauce with parmesan cheese and tosses in fresh spinach. It’s served over a poached egg on an English muffin with hollandaise sauce poured over the top, says chef/manager Erik Nelson.

Sliced tomatoes on eggs benedict gives that dish better flavor, he says.

The Briar Patch Restaurant in Winter Park, Fla., gets creative with omelets to serve its sophisticated clientele that is willing to experiment with different combinations of food, says co-owner Celeste Pertz.

The ham, brie and apple omelet is popular with its soft and crunchy texture. “The ham is a little salty with apples, which are a little sweet,” she says.

The pear and gorgonzola omelet also is popular for the same reason. The sweet pear with gorgonzola cheese also makes a sweet/salty contrast, and the eggs are a nice smooth complement, she says.

In the vegetable realm, the briarpatch omelet is one of the most popular on the menu, combining artichoke hearts, swiss cheese, mushrooms and bacon.

Also popular is the monterey omelet with sprouts, guacamole, artichoke hearts, monterey jack cheese and tomato, Pertz says.