NUTRITION CRITICS are panning the prime-time diet. That's because when actors or actresses eat or talk about food on television, 60 percent of the time they're referring to either sweets or low-nutrient beverages (coffee, alcohol and soft drinks), according to a study published recently in the American Journal of Public Health.

Tube testers from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health analyzed the food choices made by characters in two episodes each of 11 top-ranked television series and concluded that they were just as high in fat, sodium and sugar as those selected by their viewers. ("Bill Cosby Show", "A Different World," "Cheers," "Growing Pains," "Who's The Boss?", "Murder She Wrote," "Golden Girls," "L.A. Law," "Moonlighting," "Family Ties" and "Alf" were the shows.)

In the 22 programs, there were 86 occasions of eating or drinking, and almost three-quarters of them were between meals. The most frequent snack was sweets such as cakes, cookies or doughnuts, followed by salty foods such as popcorn, peanuts and pretzels. Less than 10 percent of snacks were fruits or vegetables.

What's more, researchers found that healthful foods were shown in a derogatory light: in one episode, stir-fried chicken and vegetables were refused by children at the dinner table, so the family went out for hamburgers; in another show, an actor wouldn't eat his carrots unless he was served cheesecake. And in an analysis of commercials, the researchers found more for fast food restaurants than any other food category.

To answer the question of whether watching poor eating habits on television translates into poor eating habits by the viewer needs further research, the scientists concluded. In other words, this could turn into a University of Minnesota mini-series.

...........RESULTS FROM 22 PRIME-TIME SHOWS...........

FOOD CATEGORY .......................TOTAL.........PER

................................REFERENCES...HALF HOUR

Coffee, Alcohol & soft drinks.......56...............2

Sweets..............................24..............86

Meat, fish, poultry.................17..............61

Fruits and vegetables...............13..............46

Salty snacks.........................9..............32

Breads and cereals...................8..............29

Dairy products.......................7..............25

Q: I'd like to send a care package of goodies to my son who is in Saudi Arabia. What do you recommend?

A: For the moment, don't send anything. The Department of Defense's public affairs office says that there is a temporary restriction on mail -- only first class letters, weighing no more than 12-ounces, are allowed. That amounts to no more than a cookie or two, which would probably get "pretty messed up," an Army officer admits.

Q: On a cross-country flight I took recently, I noticed that the label on the packet of pepper that came with my meal said it contained "dustless" black pepper. I've heard of pixie dust, but pepper dust?

A: The "dust" in question is very finely ground powder-like pepper, which cannot be used in single-serve packets, according to Tom Burns, executive vice president of the American Spice Trade Association. "The heat-sealer manufacturers use in packing pepper will not work with the finely ground pepper," said Burns. "Try taking a Post-it Note and slapping face powder on it. You won't find any more stick to that note." So manufacturers remove the finely ground pepper, said Burns, and end up with medium-ground pepper pieces that are "dustless."

DINNER TONIGHT

In these waning days of summer, taste buds often need some coaxing. One possibility is this trio of salads that can be mixed, matched or served as part of a light, hot-weather meal.

TROPICAL FRUIT SALAD WITH PAPAYA CREAM

(6 servings)

If guavas are unavailable, try Asian or Bosc pears.

PAPAYA CREAM:

1 cup nonfat yogurt

3 tablespoons unsweetened papaya concentrate or fruit juice sweetened with apricot jam

1/2 teaspoon grated fresh ginger root

FRUIT SALAD:

1 small pineapple, peeled, cored and cut into 3/4-inch dice

1 papaya, peeled, seeded and cut into 3/4-inch dice

2 guavas, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice

1 banana, peeled and cut in 1-inch slices

Freshly grated nutmeg

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 tablespoon finely chopped pistachio nuts, optional

Combine yogurt, sweetener and ginger in a bowl and mix well. In a serving bowl, gently mix fruit and sprinkle with nutmeg and lime juice. To serve, spoon into 6 individual stemmed glasses or plates. Top with dressing and chopped pistachio nuts, if desired.

Per serving: 119 calories, 3 gm protein, 26 gm carbohydrates, 1 gm fat, .3 gm saturated fat, .7 mg cholesterol, 40 mg sodium.

-Yamuna Devi TOMATO SALAD WITH DILL

(6 servings)

For this salad, a quick-to-make mustard and dill dressing is spooned over sliced ripe tomatoes.

5 red, ripe tomatoes, peeled

1 1/2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

Pinch granulated sugar

3/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard

4 1/2 tablespoons safflower oil

2 tablespoons snipped fresh dill (use the feathery portions)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Cut the tomatoes into 1/2-inch thick wedges or slices. Arrange the tomatoes on a platter in an attractive pattern. Whisk together the vinegar, sugar and mustard in a bowl; whisk in the oil and stir in the dill. Season the dressing with salt and pepper. Spoon the dressing over the tomatoes and serve immediately. This also makes a good side dish to grilled flank steak, chicken, hamburgers or lamb chops. Per serving: 115 calories, 1 gm protein, 5 gm carbohydrates, 11 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 19 mg sodium.

-Lisa Yockelson CURRIED TUNA SALAD WITH PEARS (3 servings)

This change from tired tuna salad comes from "The Choose to Lose Diet: A Food Lover's Guide to Permanent Weight Loss," the latest book by Ron and Nancy Goor and Katherine Boyd (Houghton Mifflin Co., $17.95).

3 tablespoons reduced-calorie mayonnaise

1 1/2 tablespoons nonfat yogurt

1 teaspoon curry powder

2 6 1/2-ounce cans water-packed tuna, drained

1 ripe pear, diced

Lettuce

Combine mayonnaise, yogurt and curry powder. Mix into tuna fish. Stir in pear. Serve over lettuce, or on French bread or pita with a brush of chutney. Per serving: 246 calories, 34 gm protein, 10 gm carbohydrates, 7 gm fat, .8 gm saturated fat, 56 mg cholesterol, 487 mg sodium.