One of the most important parts of any celebration is the food. And if you’re talking about a bar or bat mitzvah, then you’re talking about kosher food. But beware - kosher means different things to different people. If you’re having a small celebration with family and friends, then you have a pretty good chance of getting it right for your guests on your own. However, if you’re planning a large, elaborate blowout with an extensive guest list, then you’re going to have to give this matter more thought. You want to provide an atmosphere where your guests can relax and enjoy themselves - and that includes not worrying about whether they're allowed to eat the food.
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that only twenty-two percent of American Jews overall keep a kosher home of some sort. However, if your guest list is going to include people from across the spectrum of observance, that percentage may rise to as high as ninety-eight percent. And while for some it’s enough to avoid shellfish and to separate meat and dairy, others follow strict rules regarding food slaughter, ingredients, preparation, storage, utensils, dishes, and more. If you want to be the host with the most, then you need to be sensitive to the needs of all of your potential guests.
So, what’s the best way of going about it?
The Easy Way: A Kosher Food Caterer
Ok, maybe easy is in the eye of the beholder. Finding the right caterer can be a long and tedious process. Finding the right caterer for a reasonable price can be even harder. But if you’re looking for the most trouble-free way to provide reliably kosher food to your guests, then it’s hard to beat a kosher caterer. What’s more, using a kosher food caterer supports small local businesses, and it supports your local Jewish community. And what’s not to like about that?
But once you’ve decided on a kosher food caterer, the question comes back to what kind of kosher?
The term glatt means smooth, and it originally referred to the lungs of a slaughtered animal. Lungs with lesions, bumps, or some other defect meant that the animal was ill, and therefore treif, or not kosher. Now, though, many use the term to refer to different kinds of kosher food items prepared according to a stricter kosher standard -- kosher plus plus, if you will. Indeed, you might find fish, baked goods, catering services, and even entire restaurant menus that describe themselves as glatt.
If you want to ensure a high kosher standard for your celebration, then a glatt caterer may be the key. The Orthodox Union (OU) is one organization that certifies glatt caterers. If you choose an OU-certified glatt caterer, you can be certain that the kosher food you serve will be prepared to a very high kosher standard. The OU website has a searchable database of products, businesses, and services that it has certified, and you can even print out various businesses certification letters if you wish. Using an OU-certified glatt kosher food caterer will ensure that the food you serve has been supervised and certified kosher every step of the way, from ingredients to utensils to preparation and storage and beyond.
Other kosher certifications
There are hundreds of local, national, and international organizations that certify products, businesses, and caterers as kosher. If in doubt about whether the organization that certifies your caterer-of-choice will be acceptable to your guests, research that organization’s website, talk to your guests yourself, or consult your rabbi.
“Kosher style” food is just as it sounds. It’s food from different Jewish traditions that isn’t necessarily kosher. Serving kosher-style food is more like serving Chinese-style or Mexican-style food. It’s an aesthetic choice, rather than one that follows religious dietary standards.
How to Choose a Caterer
So you’ve chosen to go with a kosher food caterer. How do you start?
The best caterers book up well in advance, so the sooner you know the date of your event, the sooner you can secure your slot. This goes double if your event is scheduled to fall close to a holiday.
Word of mouth
Have you been to a party where the food was out of this world? Call up the host and ask for the name of their caterer! Your friends may have suggestions for caterers they’ve used, as well. And your synagogue may also be a good source.
Your favorite restaurant
Many restaurants also do catering. If you live in a city with a good selection of certified kosher restaurants, check to see which ones offer kosher food catering services as well.
Events planners and other professionals
If you’re using an events planner -- or a photographer, or a decorator, or any other sort of events professional -- they may keep a list of caterers that they would recommend.
Always ask a potential caterer if you can sample their wares. It’s not enough to simply get along with a caterer. You need to know they can deliver on the food.
Information up front
Make sure to get as much information up front as you can. Not just menus, but the cost per person, timetables, menu options, fees, certifications, and more.
Always check references
Another Option: A Kosher Food Restaurant
Holding your seudat mitzvah -- the meal section of your bar- or bat mitzvah celebration -- at a certified kosher restaurant is another way to ensure that your food meets your guests’ standards. Not only that, but it also spares you the drudgery of setup and cleanup. And, once again, it allows you to support local businesses and your local Jewish community. Some restaurants serve only dairy-classified foods. Others serve meat-classified foods. Still, others serve pareve, or neutral foods. A number of kosher restaurants serve combinations of the above but maintain separate kitchens.
But What if You Want to Go It Alone?
If you’re fairly certain that your own preparations will be able to meet the needs of your guests, you can go for the DIY approach. But that can be a daunting task. Where do you start?
If your guests observe strict kosher food standards, then simply serving kosher-labeled food and drink isn’t enough. Unless your venue operates under kosher standards and supervision, the process of kashering a venue is exhaustive. Some venues operate a kosher kitchen as well as a non-kosher kitchen, which can make things easier. All the same, choosing a venue that operates solely as a kosher venue might be the best choice.
Look for the label
There are a dizzying number of hechshers or labels that indicate kosher food or drink. The “Big five” kosher food certification organizations in the United States are the Orthodox Union (OU), Star-K, OK, KOF-K, and the CRC. These organizations certify some eighty percent of kosher food products and businesses in the United States.
In addition to the certifying organization, labels can give information about the usage of any given foodstuff. Foods marked D are considered dairy under kosher standards. Foods marked with an M are designated meat. Pareve means a neutral food that is neither dairy nor meat. And P indicates a food is kosher under the stricter Passover standards. For a wine to be kosher, it must have been produced by Sabbath-observant Jews from the crushing of the grapes to bottling. In addition, all ingredients must be kosher.
Not just kosher food and drink
Strict kosher observance also covers utensils, dishes, storage areas, kitchen facilities and more.
Are You Ready to Plan Your Best Mitzvah?
Planning a kosher food banquet for your guests can be daunting. It can also be exciting, an opportunity for learning, and just plain delicious.
For more information about finding kosher caterers, restaurants, and venues, check out local directories like that operated by the Rabbinical Council of California or the by iSimcha in the New York area.
Do you have any tips for finding -- and serving -- the best kosher food for large parties? Tell us about it in the comments!