What is a snack and what is a meal? It has been suggested that only humans eat meals, while other animals eat to satisfy hunger.

But most Americans do both -- we snack and eat at socially defined times. And while each of us seems to have a sure idea of which we are doing when we are doing it, we have quite a variety of opinions. Over the past two years, I've been collecting definitions and explanations of meals and snacks from students, from family heads, from singles, from grandparents, from all kinds of people in the Washington area. My responses have been both written and verbal.

A few of them define the difference as a matter of sheer quantity, like the government worker who grinned at me and said, "A snack is two drumsticks and a meal is three." And the college student with well-padded hips who wrote "a snack is a light meal which often expands to a large meal."

But in general, a snack is something to fill the stomach quickly between meals or in place of meals. Hunger is more often associated with snacking than it is with meals. But snacks are just as often thought of as rewards for finishing studying or completing a tough job or for other good behavior. And as often as they are called a response to a stomach growling with fuel needs, snacks are also called a response to a stomach crying out in anxiety.

A meal is often eaten while you're sitting at a table at a special time, and includes a number of items that constitute a balanced diet. But breakfast and lunch, although frequently mentioned as meals, are almost as often called snacks, "not a real meal," because they are eaten in a hurry, or alone, or not at home. In fact, the words home and family come up constantly in relation to meals, but in several meanings.

Parents think of meals in terms of family gatherings and pleasure. But their teen-age and college-student children write of them as well-balanced, nutritious, dull and the arena for family battles. Such students prefer snacks, which they can pick for themselves and eat when they please -- unless the meal is to be eaten at a restaurant. In that case, they can choose what they want to eat. They frequently find self-determination and spontaneity far more rewarding than planned, organized nutrition.

Ah, but when they get out on their own? Many working adults, describing themselves as always rushing between job and chores and outside activities, say they are forced to live on hastily gulped snacks eaten in fast-food settings, and all too often alone. They think of well-planned meals organized and prepared by others as delicious, elegant and social. An engineer who lives in an efficiency apartment summed it up, describing a typical day's eating pattern:

"Breakfast and lunch are snacks: fresh grapefruit, cereal, skim milk, vitamins and fresh coffee in the morning. A McDonald's hamburger and coffee at noon. I eat one meal a day: roast prime ribs of beef, potatoes baked with sour cream, fresh mushrooms, asparagus hollandaise, tossed salad, a chilled bottle of wine, candles, music and companionship."

While a meal has several items, a prescribed order and a social environment, anything can be a snack -- leftovers, specially prepared goodies, a sandwich or a bowl of soup. Or a brownie followed by a bowl of soup. Some people limit snacks to carrots and celery, "healthy items that don't prevent you from enjoying your meal," others use "chips and peanuts, between-meal items to hold you over for a full meal." Still others think of snacks as forbidden fruits -- candy and cookies and other "not healthy" items, contrasted to the meals that are nutritious and well-rounded and "good" for you.

In American life, with a world of choice and plenty, snacks reflect the reality of daily life and meals mark reunions, celebrations of events and relationships. Or, meals represent nutrition and snacks represent fun.

Here are three snacks you can make ahead and have ready for that sudden hunger pang, or as a reward for a job well done. They offer perfect compromises: planned preparation for instant gratification.

Chudva is an Indian mixture. This particular recipe is from Asha Chavan, who is studying in America and says this reminds her of her mother's cooking back home in Pune. The Hungarian cheese is a low-cholesterol version of what is called Liptauer in Vienna and Korozott in Budapest. The cheese pinwheels come from my interpretation of my great-aunt's all-purpose cream cheese dough. (In my investigations, cheese was a favorite snack item. CHUVDA (Makes about 3 cups)

1/4 teaspoon tumeric

1/2 teaspoon cumin

3 tablespoons melted sweet butter

1 teaspoon sesame seeds

1/3 cup peanuts

1/3 cup cashew nuts

1/3 cup fresh coconut, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons raisins

1 1/2 cups crisp rice cereal

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoons cayenne pepper

Pinch of garlic powder

Fry tumeric and cumin for a minute or two in melted butter. Add sesame seeds, peanuts, cashew nuts, sliced coconut and raisins. Fry until ingredients are golden brown.

Toss well with rice cereal, salt, cayenne pepper and garlic powder. Store in an airtight tin or glass jar. If preferred, a pinch of ground cinnamon can be used instead of the garlic powder. HUNGARIAN CHEESE (Makes 1 1/2 cups)

1 cup cottage cheese

1/2 cup softened margarine

1 teaspoon Hungarian hot paprika

1 teaspoon Hungarian sweet red paprika

1 1/2 teaspoons dijon mustard

2 scallions, cut into small pieces

2 to 3 teaspoons caraway seeds

1 teaspoons capers

2 anchovies

Crackers, celery pieces, green pepper slices, for garnish

Use the food chopper blade of a food processor. First mix the cottage cheese and margarine in the processor. Then add the rest of the ingredients, the scallions first cut up into small pieces. Whirl until well blended. Keep in the refrigerator until the urge for a snack overcomes you. This can be eaten on crackers, in the hollow of pieces of celery, or with green pepper slices. CHEESE PINWHEELS (Makes 40 pinwheels)

1/2 cup cream cheese, softened

1/2 cup butter or margarine, softened

1 1/2 to 2 cups bread flour, sifted

Grated cheddar cheese (about 1/4 cup)

Use mixing blade of food processor. Mix softened cream cheese and softened butter or margarine in food processor until well blended. Add flour through spout until mixture forms a ball. Wrap in waxed paper or plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator for at least 2 hours.

Roll out 1/4-inch thick on floured board. Sprinkle cheese on sheet of dough. Roll up like a miniature jelly roll. Return to the refrigerator to set again. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Slice dough thin and place on greased cookie sheet. Bake at 400 degrees for about 10 minutes. Store in an airtight tin.

Note: Cream cheese dough is also a great cookie base. Spread the rolled-out dough with orange marmalade or raspberry jam or a mixture of ground nuts with a pinch of sugar and proceed as for cheese pinwheels. Sprinkle with a light dusting of confectioners' sugar when cool and then place in tin.