"If it weren't for these meals. I don't know what I would do, because I can't cook anymore," said Reba Friedman, as she savored her steaming hot lunch of broiled fish, potatoes, and string beans which had been delivered to her a few moments before.

Mrs. Friedman, 84, suffers from glaucoma and cataracts, which have left her with seriously impaired vision. She is one of about 450 elderly or ill persons who depend on Meals on Wheels programs serving suburban Maryland to deliver a combination hot lunch and cold supper to their homes each weekday.

Meals on Wheels allows many people like Mrs. Friedman, who might otherwise have to enter nursing homes, to continue living independently in their own homes.

Fifteen separate Meals on Wheels programs cover various sections of Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Mrs. Friedman's meals, for instance, are prepared and delivered under the auspices of the Jewish Social Service. The meals are strictly kosher, and frequently feature such traditional Jewish dishes as chicken soup and kugel moodle pudding.

Other programs may include special treats - donated by volunteers - such as fruit and cookie boxes at Christmas and decorative lace baskets on Mother's Day.

Sometimes volunteers even deliver birthday cakes, accompanied, on occasion, by a birthday song.

Programs either prepare their own food or contract with private companies or hospitals. Mrs. Friedman's meals are prepared at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington.

Each Meals on Wheels plans menus with the help of a nutritionist. Some programs follow special diets, particularly for diabetics. All use little or no salt in cooking.

The 15 programs serving suburban Maryland depend almost entirely on a corps of several thousand volunteers. They contribute time as food shoppers, packers, kitchen managers, administrators, drivers, and visitors. Many volunteers are retired people who may be older than those they serve.

Teams of two volunteers load the meals into insulated boxes and then drive their routes one person remaining in the car while the other personally delivers the luch and dinner combinations from an old-fashioned wicker basket.

"We try to make people feel we're neighbors running in to deliver their food," says Lois Hoffman, coordinator of the information and referral service of the Confederation of Meals on Wheels of the Greater Washington, D.C. Area and director of the Takoma Park Langley program.

Hoffman points out that instructions for volunteers are never to leave a door unanswered. If there is no answer after repeated efforts, volunteers then report this to their coordinator who will determine how to handle the problem - in some cases it may mean calling the police to check into the situation.

"Meals on Wheels keeps many people from having to enter nursing homes," says Hoffman. "They can have a good diet, remain in their own homes, and continue to live independent. dignified lives."

The original idea of home-delivered meals reaches back to London during World War II, when it was found that many elderly people were living in bombed-out quarters, unable to shop, cook, or get to the communal soup kitchens. The idea spread to the United States in 1954, when a program began in Philadelphia. During the 1960s, the concept caught on in other cities; today there are several thousand such programs in the United States.

In the Maryland program, friendships between clients and volunteers are often very warm. Hoffman said One volunteer took two blind elderly sisters with her to the beach last summer, their first real vacation in years.

Some people use the program for a short time only, during convalescene from an illness or hospitalization.

Although Mrs. Friedman sees her family frequently, other elderly people rely on Meals on Wheels as their only daily contact with the outside world.

The cost of five hot and five cold meals varies from $10 to $16.50 a week. A few programs areable to offer meals 7 days a week. Persons unable to pay the full cost may use food stamps to purchase meals.

With the contributions of clients, churches, and private groups, the Maryland Meals on Wheels programs are self-sustaining. Others around the country are less fortunate, particularly in some inner-city and rural areas. Although the Older Americans Act provides some limited funding for home-delivered meal programs, no cohesive national effort exists to see that all home-bound persons across the United States are provided with daily nutritious meals.

However, Congress is considering two bills to establish a national Meals on Wheels program. There is some controversy as to whether a federal program would introduce a complex, expensive bureaucracy where a simple and successful volunteer system exists in many areas, but some say there may be no other way to serve hard-to-reach areas.

Information and Referral Service of the Confederation of Meals on Wheels of the Greater Washington, D.C. Area; 434-1922 between 10:00 and 1:00 p.m.

Bethesda Chevy Chase Meals on Wheels, 6050 Wisconsin Avenue, Chevy Chase, Md. 20015:6544610.

Camp Springs-Clinton Area Meals on Wheels, 4703 Brinkley Road. Camp Springs. Md. 20031: 449-8965.

Meals on Wheels of the College Park Area, 9601 Rhode Island Avenue, College Park Md. 20740; 474-1002.

C-4 Meals on Wheels, 10309 New Hampshire Avenue, Silver Spring Md; 434-8440.

Damascus Meals on Wheels, Inc., P.O. Box 102, Damascus, Md. 20750; 301-253-2561.

Meals on Wheels of Cheverly, Extended Care Facilities of Prince George's County Hospital Cheverly, Md. 20785.; 341-2498.

Gaithersburg Meals on Wheels Asbury Methodist Home. Gaithersburg, Md. 20760, 926-4900.

East of the River Meals on Wheets, (overlaps Maryland border), 2220 Branch Avenue SE. Washington, D.C. 20020; 583-0646.

Jewish Social Service, 6123 Montrose Rd., Rockville, Md. 20852; 881-3700.

Laurel Meals on Wheels, Senior Citizens Center, 900 Montgomery Ave., Laurel, Md. 20810; 497-1144.

Takoma Park-Langley Meals on Wheels, 7410 New Hampshire Avenue, Takoma Park. Md. 20012; 434-1922.

Meals on Wheels of Olney, Inc., Box 312, Olney, Md. 20832; 774-9733 (10 a.m. - noon) 279-1487 (1 - 5 p.m.).

Oxon Hill Meals on Wheels, 7801 Livingston Road, Oxon Hill, Md. 20021;248-3030.

Rockville Meals on Wheels, Inc., Crusader Lutheran Church, 1605 Viers Mill Rd., Rockville, Md. 20851; 340-1559.

Meals on Wheels of Wheaton, Wheaton Presbyterian Church, Newport Mill Road and Church Lane, Wheaton, Md. 20902; 942-1111).