NEW YORK (AP) _ Families are viewing pictures of abducted children while sitting around the breakfast table as part of a new program aimed at combating the ''national tragedy.''

Under the program, kicked off Monday at a Manhattan news conference, a manufacturer will feature a total of 24 missing children on milk cartons it distributes to dairies around the country.

Sponsors said more than 100 dairies have signed up for the nationwide program, an offshoot of local efforts in Iowa, Illinois, California and elsewhere.

Peter and Holly Hughes of Staten Island said their daughter, Holly Ann, is among the children featured on the cartons.

Hughes said his daughter, who ''is, or would have been'' 11 last Wednesday, disappeared after going to a neighborhood store on July 15, 1981.

''We want her home. We want her back very much,'' Mrs. Hughes said as she fought back tears.

Her husband said that the unknown ''is the hardest thing to cope with: whether she's dead or alive, whether she's being fed ... What goes through your mind is unbelievable.''

Last week, Doria Paige Yarbrough, a 13-year-old runaway, was reunited with her family in Lancaster, Calif., after her picture appeared on a milk carton. Doria was watching television with friends in Fresno, Calif., when a carton was shown and she was urged to return home.

Jack O'Brien, a vice president of the International Paper Co., the milk carton manufacturer, said the idea originally was inspired by the Anderson Erickson Dairy in Iowa, which published photographs of two missing Des Moines Register delivery boys.

''We've taken a local program that our dairies were pursuing and used our leverage'' to promote it nationally, said O'Brien.

More than 100 dairies have signed up so far, according to Howard R. Wilkinson of Jackson, ich., president of the National Child Safety Council.

''We believe this will lead to the locating of a number of missing children,'' said Wilkinson.

Wilkinson and O'Brien said each milk carton features two children. A total of 12 cartons, or 24 children, will be in circulation at any given time. The pictures will be changed about once a month.

Dairies will have the option of using the special message in lieu of their regular advertising on the sides of the cartons.

All the children pictured have been certified as criminally abducted. The milk carton program has been endorsed by Michele Easton, director of the U.S. Department of Justice's missing children program.

''From our point of view, one of the benefits of using milk cartons is their short shelf life,'' Ms. Easton said in a written statement. ''This enables the changing of photos as the children are found and the rotation of the pictures and identity information used.''

O'Brien said another advantage of using milk cartons is ''having the missing children exposed to youngsters, perhaps their own age, around the breakfast table.''

Wilkinson said 1.8 million children, including runaways, are reported missing every year. He said national publicity is needed because ''when a child is criminally abducted, he seldom is kept within state lines.''

He said he could not predict how many of the special cartons will be distributed because dairies have just been notified about the project.

In addition to photos, the cartons carry a written description of the children and the number of a hotline, funded by the Justice Department: 1-800-843-5678.