FOR A NONWORKING MOTHER of two young children, a dinner party is a lifeline to adult companionship and to conversation with people who are more than 48 inches tall and capable of cutting their own meat. Home entertaining is a way to audition and integrate new friends, reconnect with old ones and acquire some chits for reciprocal dinner invitations.

Christine Saunderson, 38, lives in the Palisades section of Northwest Washington with her 9-year-old son, Ben, and 6-year-old daughter, Alexis. Their home is a charming, two-story French cottage-style house, opening onto gardens that Saunderson brings to fruition.

In the back yard, a four-foot-long plastic crocodile guards a swimming pool that is the centerpiece of the family's summer socializing. On Friday or Saturday evenings, Saunderson serves dinner outdoors on a patio between the house and the pool. On Sundays she holds "bring-your-own-everything" swim parties for neighboring families as well as her children's schoolmates and their parents. So far, no one has brought along an interesting, attractive, unattached man.

"I can't live my life waiting for a man," Saunderson says with a smile. "I just can't worry about that anymore. A lot of people don't invite me places because they don't have an 'extra' man for me. They don't seem to understand that my life doesn't revolve around men -- but that my friends are enormously important to me."

This is also why her weekend dinner parties are so key.

"I want and need to see my friends. I can only manage eight for dinner because I do all the cooking and preparation by myself. Usually I invite one or two couples from among my closest friends because I need their nearness and support. I use my dinner parties as an excuse for introducing some new friend of mine into our inner circle -- and that doesn't just mean a man I'm dating. Often it's a new woman whom I like and want to know better. As a matter of fact, I generally don't have an escort when I entertain at home, and I certainly don't care if my table is 'balanced.' I have no problem about having more women than men -- or people of different ages."

In the summer, Saunderson uses the bounty from her garden, especially for hors d'oeuvres. "I always serve my own vegetables along with a dip -- never cheese or anything fancy. People eat carefully nowadays and that makes it easier to serve a simple, but elegant, meal. There is little need for hard liquor anymore, either; I've figured out that for every bottle of wine that's used, I need a bottle of water.

"I will invite interesting people to dinner twice, but then if they don't reciprocate, I don't invite them again. It is only through pay-back invitations that I meet new people."

In the summertime, I like to grill a fish out on the barbecue while my guests are having cocktails and hors d'oeuvres. Often I'll buy a big hunk of swordfish that I serve with piles of asparagus or broccoli. I also make new potatoes or rice pilaf because a lot of men still seem to want some carbs with their dinner. In cold weather I invite my guests to sit in the kitchen and help put finishing touches on the dinner while they talk and have a cocktail. People enjoy being in the kitchen with their hostess.

"Anyway, my favorite recipe -- and I've perfected it to the point I don't even have to taste it anymore during preparation -- is for gazpacho. It can be made the day before, but it always tastes special and is always a big hit. With that ready, I can talk and chat with my guests until the very last moment. "

Saunderson smiles, shrugs and sweeps a few stray crumbs off the table top into the cup of her hand. Christine Saunderson's Gazpacho Serves 4

4 large crushed garlic cloves

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons paprika

Ground pepper to taste

Pulp of three large tomatoes, crushed

4 tablespoons olive oil

4 tablespoons vegetable oil

1/2 red onion, minced

1 green pepper, minced

1 cucumber, seeds removed, minced

6 tablespoons fresh bread crumbs

6 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 cup water or soda water In a bowl, put crushed garlic cloves, salt, paprika, pepper and tomatoes. Mash these ingredients thoroughly with a fork. Add, drop by drop, the olive and vegetable oil. Stir vigorously with a whisk.

Add onion, pepper, cucumber, bread crumbs, wine vinegar and water. Stir and chill.