There once was a time when tired husbands came home to a cheery, welcoming wife and dinner on the table. That time has gone.

Today, there is instead the supermarket scramble. At the small, crowded Giant supermarket on Wisconsin Avenue and Newark Street NW -- and at thousands of supermarkets across the nation -- this scene repeats itself nightly: harried working men and women struggling through the aisles to pick out that night's dinner.

This Giant is in an affluent neighborhood, but its customers are racially and economically diverse. Clerks from nearby offices and shops stop by before the bus or subway ride home. Prosperous homeowners drop in at the end of their commute, elderly people and students from nearby apartments complete the mix. Some buy gourmet items; some buy spaghetti in cans.

It is also the second-oldest store in Giant's regional network, and at about 24,000 square feet, one of the smallest, said Giant spokesman Barry Scher. It is mobbed on Saturdays, hectic Sunday evenings, but according to Scher, weekday evening rush hour -- 4:30 to 7 p.m. -- is its busiest time.

One recent Tuesday evening, about 5:30, finds Ian Kessler and fiance'e Donna McIntire briskly scouring the aisles, in their own words, "power shopping."

He works in Bethesda, she in Dupont Circle. They both take Metro's Red Line, meeting at Cleveland Park and once a week drive up to the Giant before heading home to Columbia Heights.

These two have it down to a science. They swing through the vegetables together, then each, with a basket in hand, divide their list and fan out through the store.

Dinner tonight? "We get home and see what the booty is," said McIntire. But sometimes she admits "it's so crowded we just pick up Chinese."

Another frequent rush-hour visitor is Kathy Connell, a psychiatric social worker at Children's Hospital, who acknowledged ruefully that she ends up at the Giant three or four evenings a week.

"Poor planning," she said tossing the steak, tomatoes and broccoli into her basket. "I would never advise anybody to do it the way I do."

Not everyone is frantic and unhappy. At 5:45, Frances Patton, 73, a full-time Interior Department lawyer, is picking up a few extra items for dinner with her son. Also a lawyer, he never does the shopping or cooking because she is happy to do it for him, Patton said.

"I'm not tired, I'm not at all tired," she said, bending over the frozen vegetables. "I love to do it. I love to do his laundry, I love to do the cooking. I'm a very happy person, I love my son.

"We've got two refrigerators full of stuff," Patton added as she sped off down the aisle. "I don't really have to shop as often as I do."

At 6 p.m. the cosmetics and laundry detergent aisles are empty, but meat and frozen foods are buzzing. The express line is the busiest place in the store.

"This is a mistake. I should not be shopping at this time," said one homemaker, who did not want to be interviewed. Susan Whittle, a Delaware computer consultant here on business, picked up her solitary dinner: chili in a cardboard container, milk from a carton and a corn muffin in a paper bag. "At home we usually order out," she said.

Because of the increase in working couples, larger Giants now sell "Step Savers," complete dishes ready to pop in the microwave, said spokesman Scher. Sales of frozen dinners, the salad bar and anything microwavable are up significantly in the past five years, he said.

Safeway also now finds the evening rush hour its peak time, according to public affairs chief Larry Johnson, and has shifted marketing strategy to suit the trend. Throughout the region, Safeway has increased emphasis on prepared foods, delis, salad bars and "quick food items in the frozen food department," Johnson said.

At this small Giant, however, the only "Step Savers" are plastic containers of fruit or pasta salad, shredded carrots and stir-fry mix. But Ales Benda, a Czechoslovak journalist picking through the peanut bin, wasn't complaining. "For Europeans, even the Germans, being in a Giant or Safeway, we are thrilled," he said.

Benda's Czech news agency opened here just 2 1/2 months ago, "right after the revolution," and he is still exploring the wonders of all-night supermarkets and what he calls "deductions": Glad Wrap and bologna on sale. "What I see here is a big variety. Sometimes I even feel guilty," he said.

Dinner tonight? "Your fantastic pork and beans and kosher pickles. Very European," he said.

It is 6:30, and the crowds at the express line are thinning. But Mary, a harried blond woman who said she works at the National Rifle Association and did not want her last name used, was still plying the aisles in search of "good, creative quick food." "If I went home early enough, I'd have planned ahead. Now I need something fast," she said.

Dinner is normally at 6 or 6:30, "as fast as I can pump it out," she said. But tonight she worked late and her husband was at home waiting. "There's crackers at home," she said. "Basically, he's got two choices -- eat downtown or be patient."

Meanwhile in frozen foods, Bruce Starkenberg was stocking up on microwavable low-calorie dinners. Dinner tonight he said was "a tossup between Right Course chicken Italiano, Right Course sliced turkey, or Lean Cuisine."

Starkenberg eats Lean Cuisine about three times a week and was also buying dinner for his fiance'e, a Montgomery County teacher who "doesn't cook" and eats Lean Cuisine, too. He doubts their shopping and eating patterns will change much after they get married.

"As long as we're both working, this will be the norm," said Starkenberg, who works at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Tonight he picked up a fresh cantaloupe as a special treat, musing thoughtfully, "If we have kids and she stays home, it may be different.

"But we really haven't planned our meals that far ahead."