WHITE HOUSE chief of staff Donald Regan, speaking on "Meet the Press" last Sunday, offered an intriguing idea for curbing the Pentagon's budget. If we understand his suggestion, he is proposing that the military simply be fed less often, or less well.

Mr. Regan's questioners had asked him how the administration could reach a compromise with Senate epublicans' demands for freezing military spending if the president also insists, as he did in his Saturday radio broadcast, that "vital weapons systems, either conventional or strategic, must not be touched, period." If no weapons can be "touched, period" -- not even stretched out in their development -- what can? Well, said Mr. Regan, "just take . . . munitions, food, oil. There are many things where you could stretch out . . . what your buildup is."

Here it must be said that the strategy of skimping on the day-to-day essentials of preparation for war -- the so-called "readiness" items -- in order to divert money to the more glamorous business of building new weaponry is far from new. Administrations and congresses conspire in this sort of false economy almost every year. Moreover, when it comes to munitions and oil, Mr. Regan may have a point.

Defense experts, such as MIT's William Kaufmann, have criticized this administration for adopting foolishly high goals for stockpiling munitions -- hardly small-cost items in an era where a single round can cost in the thousands or even millions. And it would certainly be refreshing if the military quit inflating fuel cost estimates every year -- a ploy it adopts so that later on, when more honest estimates are adopted, the Pentagon can claim it "cut" its budget by billions.

But what did Mr. Regan have in mind when he suggested "stretching out" food? Skipping lunches? Putting Hamburger Helper in the meatloaf? Watering the gruel? Doesn't an army travel on its stomach anymore?

Or perhaps Mr. Regan has the germ of a better idea. Perhaps he has taken note of the fact that the vast majority of military men and women -- not to mention more than a million civilian Defense Department employees -- are engaged in pushing paper rather than in manning combat weapons. And that, as military expert Edward Luttwak so cogently describes in a chapter ("The Labyrinth: The Enormity of the Defense Establishment") in "The Pentagon and the Art of War" -- the existence of this vast self-perpetuating bureaucracy -- is a major reason why the Pentagon keeps buying unneeded, overcomplicated or excessively expensive weaponry. The best way to save on food -- and other more expensive items -- might be to have fewer people in the Pentagon to feed.