THERE WAS a time when the Jwish housewife had to put forth titanic energies to produce a massive seder meal. After cleaning her home for the springtime festival that features unleavened bread (matzo) she would change dishes, then with only hours to spare, make gefilte fish, matzo ball soup, brisket or chicken, hareset (a sweet relish), compote and macaroons. Finally, scrambling to set the table, she would miraculously complete her preparations minutes before the seder meal. Many men and women still work this way.

Even with the assistance of modern mass marketing, food processors, meat grinders and blenders, the job is still an enormous one.

What could be more logical than carry-out food for Passover, which begins Monday night at sundown?

Starting at Ridgewell's, tables, cloths and candelabra are ordered weeks in advance.

Except for the ceremonial seder plate with hareset , the typically chopped apple and nut combination, reminding the Jews of the mortar with which they built pyramids in Egypt, caterers will provide entire Passover packages. On extreme urging they will even provide the seder plate.

Locally, for example, David Yegher's Caterers of Silver Spring prepares three types of carry-out dinners. Chicken is $9.50, brisket $11.50 and prime ribs $12.50 per person. The meal includes chopped liver or gefilte fish, matzo ball or vegetable soup, carrot tzimmes and potato kugel.Dessert will have to come from elsewhere. Yegher, once a cook at Duke Zeibert's, does not make desserts at Passover. The telephone number is 587-1445.

Schleider and Shabat, Baltimore caterers, are providing Washingtonians with identical Passover packages at $6.50 per person with homemade gefilte fish, horseradish, chicken, soup, matzo balls, roasted stuffed caponette, potato kugel, tzimmes, knaidlach and fruit compote. The pick-up place for Schleider's is the parking place of the Jewish Community Center, 6125 Montrose Rd., Rockville, on Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Shabat Shomrei Emunah Congregation, 1132 Arcola Ave., Silver Spring on Sunday from 3 to 5 p.m. Sheleider's telephone number is 881-3787, and Shabat is 258-7528.

Both caterers have homemade Passover foods to go, including such items as chopped herring, chopped liver, kishka and fruit compote. Shabat is featuring a special potato knish for Passover this year with a potato and matzo meal crust filled with meat.

For those who do not think about ordering in advance, Shalom Market at 2307 University Blvd. in Silver Spring will carry Schleider's matzo rolls, apple schalet and potato and noodle kugels. In addition, Shalom will make roast turkey, brisket and rotisserie chicken strictly for Passover.

One kosher caterer, Marion Halpern, volunteers her services each year to the Ohr Kodesh Synagogue seder. Carry-out meals are also prepared for those not wishing to attend the communal seder. Orders and reservations can be made at 589-3880.

Schwartz's Family Restaurant at 11271 New Hampshire Ave., Silver Spring, advertises Passover foods to go, including chicken soup with matzo balls at 35 cents apiece, honey-dipped fried chicken and potato kugel serving six to eight at $2.75 each (593-5350).

Mary Washington caterers will prepare Passover menus when requested. They are quick to explain, however, that they do not completely clean and change their kitchen for Passover and want their customers to understand this. One caterer said that he will make anything except "flourless" tortes. His past efforts have been disasters.

One successful caterer, Polish- born Ruth Salton, offers kosher-style food. She learned her skill from her grandmother, who had a small restaurant in a Polish shtetl . Her gefilte fish (the sweet variety with no carp, which she considers too heavy in this country) was the lightest I ever tasted, and her potato chremslach with meat, onions and mushrooms extraordinary. Salton's spongecake is at least a foot high, with her creative chocolate nut tortes with cream fillings richly delicious and perfect for seder meals. Operating out of her home, Salton's telephone number is 299-9241.

Other than Salton and some kosher caterers, it was difficult to find anyone who makes his own gefilte fish. A panel of gefilte fish lovers, including one gentile newcomer to the dish, tasted five of the many packaged varieties on the market. They included sweet gefilte fish; fishlets; all whitefish; whitefish and pike; and the traditional gefilte fish with mullet, pike, carp and whitefish. All except Kedem's and Ungar's included msg. Of those tasted, only Rokeach's Old Vienna and Manischewitz' had jellied fish broth. Kedem's gefilte fish and Rokeach's Old Vienna Brand were the most popular with Mother's mixed whitefish and pike a close second. Manischewitz was dead last. Everybody admitted, however, a preference for his or her own mother's version.

The other constant on most Washington menus is matzo ball soup. Again, those who do not want to make their own can go to the above-mentioned caterers or even ask Duke Zeibert. He makes at least 300 extra matzo balls for many of Washington's more illustrious seder dinners. Names were not available, as some hostesses would prefer that the accolades stay in the family. Duke used to make his own gefilte fish at Passover, but feels that it is too expensive today and that the bottled varities, doctored up, do quite nicely.

Other than the traditional Manischewitz and Barton's macaroons and candies, Four Corners market has brought in a line of European jam and honey cookies made with potato starch from Montreal.

Even Bloomingdale's bakery will be catering to the Passover crowd with daily freshly baked honey cakes, strawberry shortcakes, sponge cakes and coconut and almond macaroons for Passover.

The range of compliance with Orthodox dietary law and customs varies from the kosher-style restaurants and caterers that do not make a pretense of Rabbinic supervision, to caterers who employ rabbis in supervisory rules. The same is true of prepared products. If in doubt of whether the dietary laws are being followed [kashurt], consult your local rabbi.