CHILDREN AND husbands often groan at the mention of it. Some can only tolerate it cold, the next day, as a sandwich. Others, looking down their noses, wouldn't be caught dead even trying it.

A poor misunderstood food, the meatloaf.It seems the only person who appreciates it is the housewife/cook/chief bottle washer. Driven into the kitchen corner by high meat prices, on one hand, and the need to offer some alternative to hamburgers and hotdogs on the other, she turns to the tried-and-true recipe mother used to make. The result may turn out to be the standard ground beef, celery, rice, ketchup and egg combination that we all know but only some of us love.

This is not to take away from the enduring respect due mom's meatloaf. Her recipe is likely a combination so tested and so delicately proportioned as to defy the exact measurements to which this generation is accustomed."A dollop" of tomato sauce, "about that much" ground pork combined with the ground beef, and "enough dried bread to hold it all together" is a method that seems never to fail.

But, relief is in sight. Creative devotees to the everwidening possibilities of uses for ground meat offer countless reincarnations for une flute de la viande . They've been known to advocate cottage cheese or swiss, raisins, horseradish, corn, sourcream. Or raw carrots, dill pickles or currant jelly, and why not?

Don't stop there. Mash bananas into it, or avocados Grate in some parmesan, as much as you like. Chop water chestnuts or almonds to crunch on. Try stuffing stuffed olives in strategic places. Or measure out some dry sherry for the meatloaf and some for yourself and watch your creativity rating soar.

Even accomplished meatloaf-makers abide by some preliminary axioms. First, you simply cannot avoid mixing the ingredients together with your hands. For the standard meatloaf, this step comes after you've run the celery, green pepper, onion or other chosen veggies through your meatgrinder, combining them with the meat. Then add one or two beaten eggs, milk (Half and Half is even better) and seasonings. Bread crumbs get thrown in last.

Believe it or not, plunging 10 pinkies into the cold and wet mess is not as unpleasant an experience as one might imagine . . . it helps to conjure up visions of building sand castles in the surf, preparing clay to be thrown on your potter's wheel into a pre-Columbian replica, or any other fantasies suitable to your sensual or esthetic disposition.

There's another rule which may come as a relief to the uninitiated or creative meatloaf-maker: Measurements do not stand hard and fast. As my mother, the ultimate authority on the cooking done in my house, says, "The thing about meatloaf is you just have to use your judgment."

The cook who feels the need to dress up his creation can always fashion a quick sauce. Two cups of tomato juice (even V-8 if you like it), one whole green onion, a few mushrooms sliced and sauteed, a clove or garlic, a few tender celery stalks, a dash of chili powder, a teaspoon of Lea and Perrins and about 1/4 cup of brown sugar (reduced for about 20 minutes or until thickened) is a nice complement to many meatloaf recipes.

And finally, it's nice to know that meatloaves can be frozen, before cooking, in the loaf pan which you will eventually use for baking.

With these hints in mind, any of the following concoctions should help dispel the myths propogated about meatloaf, which is, to my mind, one of the great American culinary creations. KATIE'S MEATLOAF (6 servings) 1 1/2 pounds beef and 1/2 pound pork ground together 1 cup unsweetened applesauce 1/4 cup cooked rice 2 stalks celery, chopped 1/2 green pepper, chopped 1 small onion, chopped 2 slices dry bread or 3/4 cup bread crumbs 1 egg, beaten 1/2 cup Half and Half 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon pepper 1/2 teaspoon paprika 3 strips bacon

Run celery, green pepper, onion and dry bread through meat grinder. Add applesauce, egg, Half and Half and seasonings to meat and mix with hands. Then add mixture from meat grinder. Mix with hands again. Add bread crumbs and mix. Shape loosely into a loaf, not packing mixture too hard. Lay three strips of bacon across the top. Bake 1 hour at 350.

The above recipe also can be used as the filling for stuffed green peppers. AVOCADO MEATLOAF (6 servings) 4 strips of bacon 3/4 cup diced celery 1/2 cup minced green onions 2 tablespoons minced parsley 1/2 cup diced green pepper 1 pound ground veal 1 pound regular ground beef 1 can (8 ounces) tomato sauce 1 cup bread crumbs 2 cups fresh chopped mushrooms 1 egg, slightly beaten 2 tablespoons flour 1 large avocado, skinned and diced 2 teaspoons celery salt 1/2 teaspoon pepper

Fry bacon until crisp and rmove from pan. In same fat, saute celery, green onions, parsley and green pepper.Remove to a large bowl and add rest of ingredients. Pack into a 5-by-5-by-9-inch loaf pan, sprinkle with paprika and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Remove excess fat from pan and bake for 45 minutes more. -from "Ground Rules" by Doyne Nickerman MEATLOAF MEXICANA (6 to 8 servings) 1 cup blanched almonds 1/2 pound ground pork 1 pound ground veal 10 stuffed green olives, sliced 1 mdeium onion, grated 2 eggs Salt and pepper to taste 1 bay leaf 1/2 teaspoon oregano 1/2 teaspoon marjoram 3 tablespoon butter 1 tablespoon cornstarch 1 cup beef broth, canned or homemade 1/2 cup sherry

Grind almonds in blender or food processor and set aside. Combine meat with olives, onion, eggs, salt and pepper. Mix these together thoroughly with hands. Form into a loaf and place in a shallow baking pan. Pour a cup of water into pan and add bay leaf, oregano and marjoram. Bake 1 hour at 350 degrees. Meanwhile, heat butter in skillet, add cornstarch and brown lightly. Add almonds, beef broth and sherry. Cook, stirring constantly, over low heat. Correct seasonings. Let sauce simmer and thicken. Pour over individual slices of meatloaf. -- from "Everything With Ground Meat" by Carmel Berman Reingold BEEF AND SPINACH LOAF (6 servings) 1 1/2 pounds ground round of beef 2 packages (10 ounces each) frozen chopped spinach, cooked and well-drained 1 medium onion, grated 1 cup cooked rice Salt Freshly ground pepper 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg 2 to 3 eggs 4 slices of bacon

Combine all ingredients except the bacon in a bowl. Mix them well with hands. Shape into a loaf or rack the mixture into a buttered 9-by-5-inch bread pan. Lay the bacon strips over the top of the loaf. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour, or until the meat is firm. -- from "Hamburger!" by Nika Flemetton

And for those with more sophisticated tastes and access to fresh game: VENISON MEATLOAF (4 servings) 1 pound ground venison (neck, fland and shoulder) 1/2 pound ground pork 1 egg 1/2 cup dried bread crumbs 1 cup milk 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 1/2 teaspoon minced onion

Mix meats thoroughly with hands. Add egg, milk, bread crumbs and seasonigs. Place in a greased pan and bake 1 hour at 350 degrees. -- from "Charleston Receipts"