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I try my best to run a traditional and meaningful Seder every year, often with much of my extended family in attendance. One big difficulty I have is that most of the people (including myself) are too hungry to really get into the Seder. They find the long story-telling of Maggid – with no more than a cup of wine and nibble of potato or celery – too much to bear. What do you think I can do about this?
Your issue is quite valid. Most people who are not that familiar with the traditional Seder have no idea how much of it – in fact the most significant part of it – occurs before the meal begins. And they are ill prepared to sit through inspiring talks and long dissertations on an empty stomach.
What we do in our family is to serve a very large snack in the late afternoon, shortly before Passover begins. Now there are a few restrictions regarding what may be served at this meal. Chametz (leaven) is forbidden starting from about mid-morning (Shulchan Aruch 443:1). We also do not eat matzah at all on the day before Passover. (Some have the custom not to eat it starting two weeks earlier, at the onset of the Jewish month of Nisan). This restriction (on the day before Passover) also applies to cakes which contain matzah meal in their ingredients (see Rema 471:2, Mishnah Berurah 11).
Finally, for the final few hours of the day, one should not eat more than a small quantity of cooked foods containing matzah meal, such as matzah balls (Mishnah Berurah 444:8). (This is as opposed to baked foods containing matzah meal, which as above are forbidden the entire day.)
What is left to be eaten? Fruit, hard-boiled eggs, and lots and lots of potato kugel! One's cooking preparations must budget in this very important meal. After unwinding from a very hectic day of pre-Passover preparations, everyone suddenly notices how starving he or she is by late afternoon. Many a potato kugel are consumed at that point. And for us, this is one of our most important Seder preparations.
So make sure to offer your guests a filling snack before the night begins. (Once the sun sets, one may not eat without first reciting Kiddush.) And if at all feasible, guests who will not be arriving before the evening should be notified that they should help themselves to a filling snack before leaving home.
It’s also important to mention two other tactics people take to alleviate their hunger which are actually not correct. One is to serve a large “appetizer” as part of the karpas. (This is a greenery or potato dipped in saltwater served near the start of the Seder; see http://www.aish.com/h/pes/l/48968741.html.) In fact, one should be careful not to consume more than an olive-sized piece of karpas or any other vegetable at that point during the Seder, because doing so raises the question of if an after-blessing should be recited (Shulchan Aruch 473:6, Mishnah Berurah 53).
A second tactic taken by some is to hurry through the entire first part of the Seder until the matzah and maror are consumed and the meal begins. They feel that once their guests are sated, they will be more amenable to listening attentively to the messages of the Seder.
I feel this is not advisable for two reasons. First of all, the main part of the Seder occurs before the meal. It will be hard to recap all the lost material after the fact. Second of all, as my teacher Rabbi Yochanan Zweig observed, once food is served that seems to grab all the attention. People become much more focused on their comfort and less religiously inclined once they start eating. The conversation and chitchat will flourish, but it will be of a different sort entirely. It will be much more difficult to direct the conversation to spiritual matters.