Forget the two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun. Forget Chicken McNuggets, the McD.L.T. and its hot-and-cold packaging triumph.

The salad has come to McDonald's, one of the last holdouts in high-calorie, high-cholesterol fast food.

Company officials say that the test marketing of packaged salads at 1,000 Golden Arches in six markets, including the Washington area, is not a response to salad bars at Wendy's, Burger King, Hardee's and Roy Rogers. But competitors say it is only logical that McDonald's eventually would enter the light-food market.

"It's good to finally see McDonald's, which calls itself the leader, following our lead" with salads, said a spokesman for No. 2 Burger King.

For McDonald's, patience has paid off in the past. "We don't look back at the competition," said Robert Keyser, director of media relations for McDonald's world headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill. "We see no need to get into the battle for second place."

No one is suggesting that burger junkies are going to forsake Big Macs or Quarter Pounders for salads. Joseph Doyle, an analyst with Smith Barney, Harris Upham, estimates that 3 percent to 4 percent of sales in salads would be good for McDonald's. Salads offer a higher profit margin for restaurants, he said, because the ingredients are cheaper than those in the meat items.

With projected 1986 sales for fast-food restaurants at $51 billion, according to the National Restaurant Association, there is much at stake.

Consumers say the choice is important to them. For Charlotte Cope, a District resident who said she visits a McDonald's as often as twice a week because her 4-year-old son Lloyd likes the hamburgers, it's a matter of health.

"I don't like fast food," Cope said. "But I can get a salad and get less calories and better nutrition."

Keyser said that the company has been pleased so far with the results of its test-marketing efforts. But he added that the figures are still being gathered and he could not say when or if all McDonalds will add salads to their menus.

The company did not offer salads until it could do it with the same quality of its other products, Keyser said.

"We have a philosophy on salads [that] revolves around fresher, crisper," he said.

At Wendy's, where the current advertising slogan is "Choose fresh. Choose Wendy's," a spokesman questioned McDonald's approach to freshness.

"Ours hasn't been sitting around in a little plastic box," said Paul Raab, manager of corporate communications for Wendy's. "You yourself choose what goes in your salad. If you want pasta salad and garbonzo beans, you've got them."

McDonald's officials emphasize the convenience of their salads, which are made fresh on the premises and even can be ordered at drive-in windows.

While the garden, chef's (each $2.29 in this area) and shrimp ($1.79) salads have been available in most Washington-area McDonald's only for about two months, the idea has been around since late 1984 in McDonald's in other test markets.

McDonald's franchisees in Milwaukee, Columbus, Ohio, Atlanta, Chicago and St. Louis now are testing the greens along with Washington-area consumers.

It's another area where McDonald's, noted for its cautious marketing of new products, was not out ahead of the pack. "We've been looking at salads in various forms for a number of years," Keyser said.

Just as McDonald's had for years resisted the idea of a hamburger with lettuce and tomato, a staple at other fast-food chains, until a franchisee came up with a two-sectioned foam package, it resisted the salad idea.

In 1979, Wendy's became the first nationwide fast-food chain to introduce the salad bar, according to a Wendy's spokesman. It was part of what he said was a response to consumers' desires for healthier food. By 1983, a National Restaurant Association study showed that four out of 10 consumers had changed their ordering habits when eating out because of nutrition concerns. Women, in particular, prefer a lighter meal, studies show.

But, some analysts have found that consumers don't always buy what they say they will. "People still mostly go [to fast-food chains] for burgers, fries and a shake," analyst Doyle said.