WHILE YOU HAVE been wondering what to do with all those holiday leftovers, D.C. Central Kitchen has been meeting with hotels, restaurants and caterers to remind them it's easy to dispose of food without wasting it.

It's true for home cooks, too. One call to D.C. Central Kitchen (202/234-0707) will assure that extra food gets used by the clients of 40 agencies -- the homeless, children, whoever is at risk of going hungry. D.C. Central Kitchen will dispatch a refrigerated truck with a driver who stocks containers and tax-deduction forms, and who has been trained to assure the safety of perishables.

On any given day D.C. Central Kitchen is probably making at least a half-dozen pickups and dropoffs. Usually a truck can come immediately for a pickup, certainly within 12 hours. Says Robert Egger, executive director, "There's a truck probably in your neighborhood without your knowing it."

The truck can deliver the food to a shelter or feeding facility hot, just in time for a meal, controlling the quantity so that new leftovers aren't created. When the timing is not right, the food is recycled at D.C. Central's kitchen into larger dishes such as stews or soups (the kitchen makes enough soup to serve 400 people every day), then portioned for the shelters and delivered.

Anyone can donate, from anywhere in the metropolitan area, at any time of the day or night. All D.C. Central Kitchen asks is that there be enough to serve at least 10 people. All foods are acceptable except those that contain alcohol (even if it has been cooked away), or custards, which are too perishable. The kitchen is particularly grateful if you call ahead to alert the staff to the possibility of food being available on a particular day.

Hundreds of restaurants, caterers and hotels already donate. The Willard Hotel has D.C. Central Kitchen drop by pans ahead of time, then fills them and has them ready for pickup when the party's over. The Omni Shoreham makes some of the city's largest single contributions from its massive banquets. The Capitol Hill Holiday Inn prepares an extra pan of each lunchtime buffet dish every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for pickup, thus feeding two entire households three days a week. Also three times a week, Armand's pizzeria donates 10 to 50 pizzas, which children particularly enjoy. Tila's, after finding that it didn't have enough waste food to make donations worthwhile, now makes enough fresh food for D.C. Central Kitchen to feed 50 to 75 people a week. 21 Federal saves up leftovers, freezing them when necessary, then calls D.C. Central Kitchen twice a week.

Caterers, which are a prime source of fresh fruit, vegetables and steamship rounds of beef, often alert the kitchen in advance of large parties. "Many brides and grooms think of us," says Egger; they specify that wedding leftovers be donated to the kitchen.

The program has moved 120 tons of food in the two years since it was started. So far this year, they've distributed 160,000 meals. And while it redistributes food, D.C. Central Kitchen also trains the homeless to work in commercial kitchens, with an eight-week course that ranges from food sanitation to CPR. A dozen of the 32 trainees have so far found jobs and become self-sufficient.

Food service people who donate extras, whether from trade shows or no-shows, agree that Egger has made it at least as easy to give away the food as it would be to throw it away. "Good Samaritan" laws now make it generally risk-free to donate leftovers. But as with many food businesses, Egger complains, "We have been a little tight this year. Catering is off. There aren't a lot of parties this year."

In this season, however, there is that leftover turkey and the extra pumpkin pie, which might combine with your next-door neighbor's to feed 10 hungry people. And there's that office party platter that wasn't finished. With no more effort than reaching for the phone, leftover food can go to those who really need it.

Phyllis C. Richman's restaurant reviews appear Sundays in The Washington Post Magazine.