LINING UP with plastic plates and forks. The smell of freshly opened cardboard permeating the exhibit halls of the Sheraton-Washington Hotel. It was the grand finale of the 54th annual National Food Distributors Association convention, the Progressive Luncheon of Exhibit Fare.

It was a topsy-turvy world, where candy had no sugar and munching was said to make you skinny, where gourmet often meant fake and all-natural was the label for instant mixes in a box. Anything that you wanted to be -- thin, healthy, glamorous -- was offered in snacks, fritters, desserts, everything from soup (instant vegetarian minestrone) to nuts (sour cream-onion corn). It was a world filled with light. Lite. Lyte.

Food distributors sought to turn your grocery shopping into the world of dreams. New Orleans comes to you: Pat O'Brien's instant Hurricane Mix, though without the outsize glass you take home to prove you were on Bourbon Street. Lyons Tea gives you a sip of the Royal Wedding, with the prince and princess' portrait on the tin (so what if their guess on the wedding gown was wrong). You can buy the noodles of the astronauts. Why go to all the sweat of joining a health spa if you can instead eat Jack LaLanne Natural Candy Bars?

You can even drink and drive, for the champagnes and beers at exhibit after exhibit were apple, and nonalcoholic.

The dreams that were being tapped were of the Wild West: Don's Chuck Wagon chili rellenos mix. And even ranch hands need a little variety, so Don's Chuck Wagon also dishes out tempura mix and quiche mix.

A word about quiche mixes: They are this year's variation on cake mixes, just add milk and eggs and bake. The crust forms itself. Supposedly. mThey taste like a cross between Ritz cracker pie and airlines' reheated omelets. But the possibility of a quick-mix, all-natural, self-crusting quiche with a shelf life of at least a year and in five flavors -- including jalapeno -- will show those chauvinistic Frenchmen something about America. Won't it?

If it was not French or Chinese (Molly's Kosher Mushroom Chow Mein, Allied Old English Chinese Fried Noodles), it was Mexican: vegetarian chili mix, nacho-flavored tortillas, ready-to-eat Mexican Gourmet Tamales.

This is an era of generalization: Iroquois Grocery Products distributes a range from yromanoff caviar to Yoo-Hoo Chocolate Syrup. And it is an age of differentiation: instead of simply mayonnaise, one company makes potato salad dressing and cole slaw dressing; meatball mixes come Italian or Swedish style; sour cream dips come in over a dozen flavors.

It is also an era of choice: Kjeldsens Danish butter cookies are in a familiar blue tin. So are Atlantis. And Marquise. And several other brands.

It may be the end of mealtime. Nutrition bars, Crunchie Munchies, Skinny Munchies, Love Snacks, Disco Snackin' Chips, Snack Sticks (with chocolate mint for after-snack snacks). Health food stores were being wooed with all-natural roasted corn, in potato chip flavors (barbecue, sour cream-onion).

Even the same old foods come in new, new packages. Bel Paese cheese is in a doll-size two-bite form. String cheese has been unraveled and shrink-wrapped in snack size. Bonbel comes not just in tiny cubes, but now in tiny rounds.

Food distributors may be as large as the nationally recognized Buitoni or as small as The Good Sauce, a dijon mustard-honey-curry concoction manufacturer in a Greenbelt town house. Among the 175 exhibits, through the seas of pina colada mixes, there were islands of deliciousness. Two companies were importing German blue cheeses, among them "brie type" soft cheese, 70 percent butterfat with the pungency of gorgonzola. A vegetable juice that tastes more of vegetables thatn of tin was attempting to squeeze the V-8 market. But the most delectable food being sampled at the convention was a smoked trout mold in the Virginia Marine Products Commission booth. Can you buy it? No. Can you concoct it from a box? No. The woman staffing the exhibit didn't even have a recipe for it. She just made it up. From scratch.