AS THE baby-boom babies grow older and the U.S. population leans toward middle age and beyond, food marketers begin the scramble to predict preferences of the older population.

Marion Weaver, an 80-year-old Silver Spring resident, is one of these older consumers who collectively spend $26 billion annually in grocery stores. Like most, she'll say she's not like a lot of other older people. Like many, she sticks to familiar, quality name brands rather than trying to save money with generic or store brands; and like some, she attributes her good health to a reasonable, balanced diet.

Because older people now make up about 11 percent of the American population, and because this percentage continues to grow, it behooves the supermarket industry to find out just what makes these people tick.

What Miklos Research Association, Inc., hired by the Food Marketing Institute to research the situation, discovered about seniors like Weaver was revealed at a recent FMI convention in Chicago.

The elderly population (those interviewed were between 60 and 80) doesn't have a lot of extra money; its members are interested in well-balanced meals that are low in sugar, salt and fat; they don't like coupons but use them anyway in an attempt to stretch their food budget; they'd rather choose fresh vegetables and meat than have them prepackaged and they like courteous store personnel to be available to answer questions.

They don't sound a whole lot different from everybody else, do they?

Turns out they are just normal folk who don't feel old, disdain the term "senior citizen" and don't see themselves separate from society, as in "senior citizen" vs. "other citizen."

Several factors, however, tend to separate older Americans from others. Children leaving home, retirement, degenerative diseases and the death of a spouse are all major changes which influence the way most people perceive themselves.

Children leaving home create smaller households which need less food. Those shoppers with "empty nests" complain that often food comes packaged in family-size containers. When parents move from family homes into smaller apartments, there isn't even storage for these larger packages, much less a way to consume all the food.

Further, these shoppers complain that prepackaged meat and produce limit their choices. Those who prefer pork chops feel compelled to buy large packages of them because they never see a package with just two. Dorothy Gates, an 80-year-old employe of the American Association of Retired Persons, gets around this by preparing many single servings at once and freezing them for later use. "It isn't a problem for me," she says, "but I can see how it would be for people who don't do what I do."

Retired teacher Eunice Sandhaus obtains her meat from a kosher butcher who cuts the meat to order, but she has noticed that prepackaged fresh fish usually comes in too large a quantity. Although she says she can freeze the extra amount, supermarket spokesmen don't advise freezing fresh fish in a home freezer--the temperatures are too high and the fish freezes too slowly.

Marion Weaver says she avoids this problem by "ringing the bell" for the butcher at any of the supermarkets she patronizes: "That's what that little button is there for." She says the supermarket butchers are "more than happy" to cut a pork loin into roasts and chops, or to slice ham, or to cut beef into roasts and stew meat.

Prepacked vegetables also cause problems for older people. Those who live alone don't need five zucchini. They need one. They'd rather, the study showed, hand-select their own produce and have a butcher available to cut meat at their request. Eunice Sandhaus says she just won't buy prepackaged fruits and vegetables.

Retirement creates money worries as households become limited to one income or perhaps a fixed income. So while inflation affects everyone, older shoppers often have more to cope with each year. Marion Weaver, who believes that savings are made by buying name-brand foods, says she thinks people waste the most money by throwing food away. She cooks a lot on the weekends for meals during the week. "When I get through with a chicken," she says, "she's pretty clean."

Weaver lives with a brother who "doesn't mind eating leftovers." So a roasting hen with dressing may turn into chicken a la king or hash during the week. With any leftover meat she'll make what she calls "patties" that are like Cornish pasties--meat- or vegetable-filled biscuit or pastry rounds, seasoned with onion, celery and the like, which are folded into a half-moon shape and baked until golden. If there's sauce or gravy left over from the original dish, she'll pour this over the top. "I don't waste food," she says.

Older people on fixed incomes say they shop more carefully than in the past, buy less expensive meat (chuck steak rather than New York strip) and don't purchase produce out of season.

They will travel to supermarkets offering specials on the items they need, rather than shopping at a favorite or neighborhood supermarket. Like most shoppers, they use coupons and stock up on specials.

Limited funds make many shoppers more sensitive to such assets as unit pricing. Unfortunately, they complain, shelf tags are often too difficult to read or, worse, not even near the food they describe. Older shoppers (along with their children and their grandchildren, no doubt) become frustrated at efforts to keep an eye on the grocery bill when they can't even find price tags.

Those who suffer degenerative diseases criticize manufacturers for not producing foods suitable for their low-calorie, or low-fat, or low-sodium diets. Even those who aren't afflicted with specific diseases try to follow a moderate diet to maintain their health.

Personal interviews with older persons show that a lot of them read labels. "You know what you're getting when you read the labels," says Weaver. Sandhaus reads ingredient labeling carefully because, "I like to know what I'm eating." One trouble, she says, is that the print is often too small for her to read.

Many say they become frustrated trying to follow a special regimen and abandon their diet altogether. They complain that only a limited variety of canned and packaged goods meets the needs of the sodium-restricted or calorie-restricted person.

Because she must keep an eye on her sodium consumption, Sandhaus rarely buys prepared foods. And because she likes "complete control" over the food she eats, she doesn't like to buy food with additives, even when it's a sodium substitute.

In this regard older shoppers would also prefer clear, distinct ingredient labeling. Many of those interviewed said that chemical names were deceptive--not all knew that dextrose means sugar--and they'd like to see packages list percentages of sugar and sodium in a food. Many said they did not buy foods that had no nutrient labeling.

While there are lots of complaints--that foods are stacked out of reach and that grocery carts are hard to separate--Weaver points out there are a lot of good things about the supermarket. She's been shopping for 70 years, she says, and she finds the stores a lot cleaner and selling "a larger variety of food than ever before." This perception was not uncommon, and for the most part older shoppers felt that supermarkets responded well to complaints about poor food quality and improper service.

A spokesman at the Food Marketing Institute says it gathered its data to determine what frustrated the older shopper so retail supermarkets might meet some of those needs. Stores across the country have begun this effort: One chain in Minneapolis publishes recipes for special diets and color codes foods on the shelf to the appropriate diet. Some stores offer consumer advice through newsletters and radio programs. One even buses older shoppers to the store from housing projects.

In this area, services differ:

At Shelton's: Every Tuesday, Shelton's offers a 10 percent discount on all food items to those over 62 years of age. (The discount excludes paper goods, detergents and other non-food items.) The market also delivers groceries to the handicapped or those confined to the house, adding a $2.50 service charge. According to the manager, Shelton's will deliver "as long as it's within our range"--within approximately a 20-block radius of the market. Shelton's is located at 500 12th St. SE. Phone: 544-4200.

At Safeway: Consumer advisor Barbara Beiser says new and remodeled stores now include benches or other seating for those who need to rest during shopping. All personnel have been instructed to help shoppers find foods or reach foods placed on high shelves. "Butchers are there to provide a service to the customer," says Beiser, who adds that the meat cutters will bone or slice any piece of meat to order. She says that most of the produce is sold loose, and any packages can be split. They'll even split a head of cabbage.

At Giant: At District stores only, Giant has instituted a special diet labeling program. Foods that are either low or reduced in sodium, fat-cholesterol or calories are designated as such on an extended unit-price label. And for better readability, Giant plans to enlarge the entire price label, says consumer information manager Ilene Katz. For the hearing-impaired, Giant has a TTY (teletype writer) hookup for those who need pricing or product information or want to register complaints (the number is 341-HEAR). Giant also publishes a pamphlet entitled "Shopping Sense for Seniors," which, among other tips, suggests that seniors form buying clubs to split cheaper, larger items with friends, lists a one-week low-cost diet and ways to stretch foods for the freezer. Katz also says, "There should always be someone personnel available for those who need help," and that seniors should "not hestiate to ask produce or meat departments to split or repackage" items if they need smaller quantities.

At Chevy Chase Market: Owner Bernard Freedman says that meat is always cut to order and that "we'll sell anybody anything they want"--meaning that the personnel is more than willing to split packages of prepackaged produce (although most of the fresh fruits and vegetables are sold loose).

Marion Weaver says she loves shrimp, but can hardly afford to buy it. When she does, she makes sure a little goes a long way by making a creole jambalaya. Splurge on shrimp when you've saved money buying ham on sale--jambalaya uses them both, but goes the distance when it's served with rice.

SHRIMP JAMBALAYA (4 servings) 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 1 cup ham, diced 1/4 cup onion, diced 1/4 cup celery, chopped 1/4 green pepper, chopped 1 clove garlic, minced Dash thyme 1 bay leaf Dash hot pepper sauce 1 pound canned tomatoes Dash lemon juice 1/2 pound peeled shrimp 2 cups cooked rice

Heat oil in large pan and add ham, onion, celery, green pepper and garlic. Stir until vegetables are limp. Add thyme, bay leaf, hot pepper sauce, tomatoes and lemon juice. Simmer, uncovered, until mixture thickens somewhat. Add shrimp and cook 3 to 5 minutes, until shrimp becomes opaque. Serve over hot rice. BRAISED BEEF (6 servings)

This beef has many purposes. It's basically a stew but can be served a la mode with plain or spicy dumplings or as shepherd's pie when topped with mashed potatoes. 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 1 1/2 pounds beef chuck roast, cut into small cubes 2 tablespoons flour 10 small white onions 8 carrots, peeled if desired, and cut into 2-inch lengths 1 1/2 cups beef broth 1/2 cup red or white wine (or use more broth) 1 bay leaf 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped 1/2 teaspoon marjoram Salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large dutch oven. Add the beef cubes and stir over fairly high heat to brown on all sides. Add the flour and stir to coat the meat. Add onions and carrots. Pour in beef broth and stir until it thickens slightly. Add remaining ingredients, cover and simmer over low heat for about 30 minutes if adding dumplings (see recipe below). If using for shepherd's pie, however, cook the meat an additional 30 minutes, or until it is tender.

HORSERADISH DUMPLINGS (4 servings) 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 2 teaspoons baking powder 3/4 teaspoons salt 3 tablespoons solid shortening 1 tablespoon prepared horseradish (omit if plain dumplings are preferred) About 3/4 cup milk

Sift flour with baking powder and salt. Cut in shortening with two knives or a pastry blender until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Toss in the horseradish if using, and stir in the milk until the mixture holds together. Drop the mixture by teaspoonfuls into the hot braised beef. Cook about 15 minutes, then cover and cook another 10 minutes.

Another option, once the dumplings have been placed on top of the beef mixture, is to place the uncovered casserole in a 350-degree oven to brown the dumplings like biscuits. Allow the beef to cook 15 minutes longer on top of the stove before adding the dumplings.

MASHED POTATOES (2 servings) 2 large russet potatoes 2 tablespoons butter 1/2 to 3/4 cup milk, water or beef broth Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Peel and slice the potatoes in a small amount of boiling water until they can be pierced easily with a fork. Drain the water (and reserve it, if desired, for thining). Mash the potatoes with potato masher or food ricer. Add butter and liquid. Stir to blend and season to taste. Place the braised beef (leftover after beef and dumplings above) in a small casserole and top with mashed potaotes. This dish can be refrigerated, frozen, or baked at this point. If baking, heat about 20 minutes at 350 degrees. If frozen, cook for an hour at 350 degrees.

CREAMED CHICKEN (4 servings) 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 1 small onion, chopped 1/4 teaspoon thyme 1 tablespoon fresh parsley, minced 3 tablespoons flour 2 cups milk or 2 cups chicken stock enriched with 1/3 cup instant nonfat dry milk 2 cups cooked chicken, cubed Salt and pepper to taste 1 cup peas, optional 2 cups cooked rice

Heat oil in heavy skillet and add chopped onion, thyme and parsley. Heat until onion is transparent. Add flour and stir over medium heat for 1 minute. Whisking constantly, add liquid. Cook mixture until thickened. Add chicken, salt and pepper and peas (if the peas are fresh or frozen, allow adequate cooking time). Heat through and serve over rice. (As an alternative, serve creamed chicken over toast, noodles, toasted english muffins or waffles.)