As any armed services veteran will agree, mess hall food often left much to be desired - at least in the past. But with the coming of an all-volunteer military service, much of this has changed. Military men and women now must be pleased as well as fed.

While there have certainly been a number of improvements made in recent years, there are still problems that the Department of Defense must solve before we can say that our troops are really out front, nutritionally speaking.

First, let's look at the positive side. Today's mess hall fare is not only nutritionally adequate but also tastefully prepared and served. Food preferences also have been taken into consideration, with such favorites as roast beef, Swiss steak, french fried shrimp, pizza, spaghetti and meat balls and hamburgers all frequent offerings. Oranges, apples, milk and ice cream are also popular items. And no one needs to worry about getting enough to eat; the meals add up to a whopping 4,600 calories a day - far more than any but the most active GI really needs. Indeed, overeating and food waste are common problems. Some recent surveys have indicated that total food waste runs as high as 50 per cent in some installations.

The Department of Defense, just like any family, has to live within a food budget, which allows about $2.83 a day per person for meals. Rules for living and eating on base are more flexible than in the past, so a large number of military men and women are electing to take that money and eat off base. If you've eaten out lately, you'll know that $2.83 doesn't go very far. As a result, recruits who eat off base are less likely to get as much nutrition for their money as those who eat in the mess hall.

On the whole, the nutritional status of today's military men and women is fairly good. But in some ways the recruits do reflect our sedentary, overfed and underexercised population. For example, today's service men and women are more apt to be overweight than in the past. Examiners also find that new recruits have a lot of dental cavities and a high incidence of periodontal disease. Fortunately, the military's regular checkups and free health services promote detection and correction of these problems, and vigorous, mandatory physical activity programs mean that recruits are more likely to keep physically fit.

There are a number of other reforms that the military establishment might consider to further improve the nutritional status of its volunteers. For example, to help those interested in losing weight, we would suggest offering skim as well as whole milk, emphasizing low-fat meals, fish and chicken, and preparing broiled or baked items as alternatives to fried foods. Other calorie-saving suggestions might include offering low-calorie salad dressings and supplying fresh fruit as an alternative dessert.

Considering the prevalance of dental cavities among new recruits, it seems odd that soft drinks, which are high in sugar and have no nutritional value other than calories, should be served in mess halls. Recruits may wish to purchase these drinks, but we doubt that Uncle Sam should provide them free.

Some of this country's best health-care facilities are found in military hospitals. We think that service men and women should benefit from this medical and nutritional expertise, especially when it comes to practicing good preventive nutrition. And we civilians also should do our part by continuing to stress nutrition educationin our schools and practicing it at home.