Happy Meals: Ten Ways to Keep your Children Engaged at the Shabbat Table

Shabbat didn’t just magically transform into my favorite day. When my husband and I were dating, we envisioned our Shabbat table filled with singing, laughter, and deep discussions. We imagined candles glowing, and dreamed of children calmly awaiting the blessings over wine and bread.

Fast forward fifteen years and five kids later – creating a peaceful Shabbat table with cooperative children is no easy task. With children ranging in age from infant to 14, sitting happily together for extended periods proved challenging. We needed techniques to create a happier atmosphere, and systems that would enable each member of our family to joyfully cooperate.

Here are some tips that we’ve developed over the years to help us enjoy our time together at the Shabbat table.

1. Awesome Notes

During the week, I write down my children’s noteworthy actions and place the small papers inside a mason jar labeled with their name.

Emmy excitedly picked up the utensil Mommy accidentally dropped.
Liv ran to get ice for her sister when she fell down.

On Shabbat, we read the awesome notes out loud and place them in a bowl, raffling off a prize afterward. The anticipation of reading and raffling keeps our children at the table. When we announce “Awesome notes!” any children who have left come running.

This process enables my children to feel noticed at the table, which increases their positive behavior throughout the week, and the cycle repeats. I gain the most from this ritual because acknowledging my children’s kind deeds helps me maintain a more positive lens when they aren’t having their best moments.

2. Popsicles and Chocolate Challah

I strategically buy popsicles – or any dessert that takes a while to finish – for Shabbat because it keeps everyone together at the table just a few minutes longer. But why wait for dessert? Chocolate challah garners excitement from everyone for the meal to begin.

3. Highlight of the Week

My children love sharing their highlight of the week [H.O.W] because it gives everyone an opportunity to be in the spotlight. Additionally, relating positive moments helps prune our minds towards positivity. This activity forces our brains to preemptively search our week for the positive, while at the same time filtering out smaller annoyances. Doing so inspires a warmer atmosphere for all of us.

4. I Love You Because

Each Shabbat, a different family member is chosen for everyone else to express what they love best about that person. This spreads tremendous love and joy for both the person receiving the praise and the family members giving it. Don’t forget to have the chosen family member say something they love about themselves, as well!

5. Let Them Leave

It’s important for children to feel that sitting at the Shabbat table isn’t akin to a prison sentence. We can allow younger children to leave, and still enjoy the company of whoever remains. You might be surprised that by letting them go, they come back on their own sooner than you anticipate.

6. Let the Games Begin

Consider bringing board games or cards to the table to keep the children engaged. If you’re short on space, the games don’t have to be physical. Broken telephone, I spy, or name-that-tune work well.

7. Singing

My favorite moments at the Shabbat table are singing together, and I will cherish these memories long after my children have left the nest. Studies show that singing in groups releases feel-good hormones and fosters relaxation and unity. Take advantage!

8. Learn Something Together

Our family consistently reads a few passages of the book, Guard Your Tongue every Shabbat. Sometimes we manage to catch everyone’s attention, while other times the kids are barely listening. We plan to celebrate together when we complete the book.

Any Jewish topic that is shared at the table can add depth and meaning. Younger children can share a project on the weekly Torah portion, while older children can relay a story or deep idea, and incentives can help facilitate this.

9. Enlist Help

Help does not have to be hired. My children sometimes choose a dish to make for Shabbat. When they bring it to the table, I praise their involvement, and they feel proud of their contribution. It also helps my picky eaters, because they enjoy eating food they made themselves.

10. Just Us

Consider having “just us” meals – even when COVID-19 is over. When we are guests or hosting, our ability to give undivided attention to our children is reduced. Creating alone time takes the hosting pressure off, and I can really listen to my children when they spontaneously share things, like their dreams and goals.

“Guests” aren’t always people. “Just us” also means removing electronics for 25 hours. One of the best aspects of full Shabbat observance is creating focused time with one another. Our families need to feel like the center of our lives, and that only happens if we carve out space for them. Just us time can do just that.

Creating a special atmosphere at the Shabbat table begins during the week. Are we smiling when we talk about the upcoming Shabbat? Are we happy to have guests and prepare? If the word ‘Shabbat’ conjures up images of exhausted parents, then where does that leave our children? Why would they want to sit at a table that creates stress and elicits complaints?

Knowing your family, pick a tip you think could work and try it out, and watch the magical possibilities of your Shabbat table unfold.

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