Dr. Mercola Articles
How to Grow Your Own Superfood — Tips for Growing Kale
Fri, 26 May 2017 05:00:00 GMT

By Dr. Mercola

Kale1 — a well-recognized "superfood" — is rich in healthy fiber and antioxidants, and is one of the best sources of vitamin A, which promotes eye and skin health and may help strengthen your immune system, and vitamin K.

A 1-cup serving has almost as much vitamin C as an orange and as much calcium as a cup of milk. It's also an excellent source of lutein and zeaxanthin (which help protect against macular degeneration), indole-3-carbinol (thought to protect against colon cancer by aiding DNA repair), iron and chlorophyll.

One serving of kale also contains 2 grams of protein, 121 milligrams (mg) of plant-based omega-3 fats, 92 mg of omega-6, and — like meat — all nine essential amino acids needed to form proteins in your body, plus nine nonessential ones for a total of 18. Studies suggest kale can help lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol while raising HDLs, lowering your risk for heart disease. Kale has also been shown to provide "comprehensive support" for detoxification by regulating the process at the genetic level.2

Kale Is Simple to Grow and Provides Ornamental Beauty

Unfortunately, conventionally-grown kale is frequently contaminated with high amounts of pesticides,3 making it important to buy organic. Better yet, grow your own!

As little as three or four plants can supply enough greens each week for a family of four, and the plants grow well in containers if you don't have a backyard. Many gardeners appreciate kale for their ornamental value as well. Growing your own will also give you better control over soil conditions.

Are Concerns About Thallium Toxicity Valid?

Like many other greens, kale tends to concentrate toxins present in the soil, and thallium toxicity has been reported even in organically-grown kale. Media warnings about "kale poisoning" erupted two years ago after private experiments by molecular biologist Ernie Hubbard suggested people were being exposed to dangerous levels of heavy metals from plants like kale.

The story broke in the magazine Craftmanship Quarterly.4 Huffington Post was one of the few news sources trying to clarify the media miscommunication that followed, noting the errors in journalism.5 Anna Almendrala wrote, in part:

"Hubbard, an unaffiliated scientist from Marin, California, who works at an alternative health clinic, has been testing local kale and soil and has arrived at the conclusion that the cruciferous vegetable's ability to 'hyperaccumulate' the heavy metal thallium is posing a health risk to his community.

Hubbard tested levels of thallium in vegetable samples and in the urine of people from Marin … who have complained of things like fatigue, brain fogginess and nausea. The symptoms are signs, he said, that they may be experiencing low-level heavy metal poisoning.

These signs, however, are correlative, which means Hubbard doesn't know for sure if crucifers have caused the symptoms or if something else may be at play. But this hasn't stopped other outlets from recommending that their readers cut back on certain vegetables …

[T]here's no reliable evidence to suggest you should kick your kale to the curb, confirmed Shreela Sharma, a registered dietitian and associate professor in the department of epidemiology, human genetics and environmental sciences at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

Hubbard acknowledged the limitations of his research to HuffPost, and wrote in an email that he never intended for his preliminary results to stand on their own, without corroboration, as a prescription for the general public."

It's important to realize that nutrient and contaminant uptake go hand in hand, and if there's a thallium problem, it's really a soil quality issue, not a kale plant issue per se. If you grow your vegetables in clean, healthy soil, you will not have heavy metals in your food, by virtue of there not being any in the soil for the plant to take up.

Kale Breeding Program Promises Greater Variety

There are many different varieties of kale, providing different colors, textures and tastes. Cornell University is also working on a program to identify and breed consumer favorites, based on shape, color, flavor and texture. As reported by Science Daily:6

"Griffiths and Swegarden are focusing efforts on developing new kale cultivars, including the evaluation of hybrid combinations. New cultivars in Griffiths' breeding pipeline will push consumer expectations for kale, blurring the current color boundaries of greens and purples and introducing a range of new leaf and plant shapes …

As part of the program, Swegarden has been gathering feedback from seed producers, growers, supermarket managers and consumers … She is partnering with Cornell's Sensory Evaluation Center to perform consumer trials to develop a consumer kale lexicon and establish a trait hierarchy that can be used to guide the breeding program.

This data will determine which hybrids and breeding lines to select in the field. Swegarden predicts that in the next few years consumers will see an even richer diversity of leafy greens available to them."

purple kale

Purple kale

Popular Kale Varieties

The oldest variety of kale is curly kale, which has ruffled leaves, a deep-green color and a bitter, pungent flavor. More recent varieties are ornamental kale, Russian and dinosaur kale, the latter of which has blue-green leaves and a more delicate taste than curly kale.

Ornamental kale, sometimes called salad savoy, was originally used as a decorative garden plant (it comes in green, white and purple colors), although it can also be eaten and has a mellow flavor and tender texture. As a general rule, kale with smaller leaves tends to be more tender and milder than larger-leaved varieties. While there are many options, some of the more popular varieties of kale include:7,8,9

  • Red Russian, a frost-hardy, slug-resistant variety that is sweeter than most other kinds of kale
  • Dinosaur kale (aka Tuscan kale or Lacinato), another sweet-tasting variety with large, puckered blue-green leaves
  • Hanover Salad, a fast grower that produces an early harvest
  • Redbor, a magenta-colored, curly-edged variety with mild flavor and crisp texture
  • Vates, a dwarf kale with curly, blue-green leaves that can tolerate both heat and cold
lacinato kale

Dinosaur kale

Kale Is an Ideal Cold Temperature Crop

As a general rule, kale tastes best when grown in cooler temperatures. Warm weather (or summer crops) produces more woody and bitter-tasting greens. Optimal soil temperature is in the 60- to 65-degree F range, but you can direct-seed into your garden as long as the soil temperature is at least 45 F.

To harvest before the worst summer heat has a chance to take its toll, start seeds indoors approximately six weeks before your last frost date.10 Transplanting seedlings into your garden can speed up the maturation process from an average of 55 to 75 days to as little as 30 or 40.

For a fall crop, plant seeds about eight weeks before your first frost date. Kale is cold tolerant, and if you live in the north, you can harvest even after a light snowfall. Most can thrive in temperatures as low as 15 degrees F, giving you the option of cultivating a winter crop.

Sow seeds at a depth of about one-half inch. Keep moist but avoid overwatering as this may cause the seeds to rot. Germination typically takes about 10 days. Thin the plants once they're 3 to 4 inches tall, leaving only the healthiest-looking ones. Once the seedlings are about 9 inches tall and four leaves have developed, they're ready to be transplanted into your garden.

General Growing Tips

In the early spring and fall, plant your kale in full sun. If you're growing it during the summer, be sure the plants have partial shade. Use straw or mulch to preserve moisture and prevent the roots from excess heat. Just beware that kale will not generally thrive in the summer, and will be far more bitter than a fall crop grown in a cooler climate. Kale tends to become more attractive to pests during the summer as well

Kale tends to prefer slightly acidic soil that is high in nitrogen. Make sure the soil drains well, but keep moist to avoid stunting the plant's growth. Lack of moisture will also render the leaves tough and bitter

Dress with compost every six to eight weeks. Growth can be further boosted by adding a seaweed or fish emulsion once a month

Give each kale plant 12 to 24 inches of space to allow sufficient airflow

Kale grows very well planted next to beets, celery, cucumbers, herbs, onions, spinach, chard and potatoes. Avoid placing it next to beans, strawberries or tomatoes

As a member of the cabbage family, kale is prone to rot diseases like black rot, club rot and wirestem, and while far more disease-resistant than many other vegetables, common pests include aphids, cabbage loopers, cabbageworms, cabbage root fly, cabbage whitefly, cutworms, flea beetles and slugs.

One of the easiest ways to protect young kale from many of these pests is to use a featherweight row cover. Once you remove the row covers, check your plants often for signs of pests and disease.

Harvesting, Storage and Cooking Suggestions

Your kale is ready for harvest once the leaves are about the size of your hand. Harvest by nipping the outer leaves off from the stem. Be sure to leave the center leaves to ensure continued growth. As a general rule, you can harvest three or more leaves from each plant every five days. Remove any yellowing or wilted leaves, as leaving them on the plant will encourage pests.

Kale has a relatively short life in terms of crispness, so it's best to use within a few days of harvesting, although the leaves can be blanched and frozen for long-term storage. Kale chips are another popular alternative that will lengthen their shelf life. Here's a simple kale chip recipe:

kale recipe

Curly kale


  • 6 cups of torn and de-stemmed curly kale
  • 2 teaspoons coconut oil, grass fed organic butter or ghee
  • 1/4 teaspoon Himalayan salt
  • Nutritional yeast to taste

Optional: 1 pinch sweet or smoked paprika, chili powder, garlic powder or onion powder


  1. Wash and spin dry the chopped, de-stemmed kale. It's important that the kale is completely dry before baking
  2. Toss together the kale and coconut oil. Massage together with your hands until every leaf is coated
  3. Sprinkle on salt, nutritional yeast and any seasoning you will be using. Toss again to evenly distribute
  4. On a parchment-lined baking sheet, arrange the kale evenly without crowding or overlapping
  5. Bake in a 300-degree F oven until crisp and dark green, approximately 12 to 15 minutes
  6. Cool completely before eating. This will allow the chips to crisp up

Kale is versatile in that it can be used either raw or cooked, and makes for a great addition to a wide variety of dishes. Cut smaller, paler green leaves into fresh garden salad; use the larger, dark greens for stir-fries or soup. For even more serving suggestions, see my previous article, "9 Healthy Kale Recipes." You can even eat kale for breakfast. Instead of eating an egg, try this quick and easy breakfast kale stir-fry:

  • Chop up half a bunch of kale, a quarter of an onion, and stir-fry in a tablespoon of coconut oil for a few minutes until the leaves are tender
  • Add pinch of sea salt or Himalayan salt, a pinch of pepper, a teaspoon of lemon or Ume Plum Vinegar and some dulse flakes
How to Grow Delicious Dill
Fri, 26 May 2017 05:00:00 GMT

By Dr. Mercola

Dill is an uncommonly versatile perennial herb. If you enjoy growing dill and using it in your recipes, you already know that, but many people, upon tasting the deliciously light, savory flavor in salads, sandwiches or soups, wonder what it is and want more. Of course, many identify dill (Anethum graveolens) with the hamburger pickles of the same name. That's how famous dill is; a pickle is even named after the herb that made it famous!

When you sprinkle on a little fresh dill, "plain old" takes on a whole new level of panache. Cottage cheese and eggs, for example, adopt a warm, distinctive essence. And many people may be familiar with the classic cucumber tea sandwiches made by mixing dill weed with cream cheese. You can also whip up a dill sauce to top wild-caught fish, tender-crisp veggies or salad. Once you've tried it, you won't want it any other way.

While it's possible to purchase fragrant dill fronds or "starts" from farmers markets and grocery stores, the freshest dill will always come from your own garden. Even if you're not a garden enthusiast, this herb is so easy to grow, care for and harvest, the hardest part may be deciding which recipe to try it in first.

Dill Varieties

There are several dill varieties. Bouquet dill is smaller and has fewer blossoms and seeds. Hardy varieties like Delikat, which is dense, and Fernleaf, a dwarf type, do well even in areas with fewer than six hours of sun per day. Other popular cultivars include:

  • Dukat, a smaller, brighter green and more compact variety that's good for containers and flavorful in salads
  • Superdukat contains more essential oil than Dukat
  • Long Island and Mammoth can reach 5 feet in height and are excellent for pickling
  • Vierling takes longer to bolt than other types, which means you can harvest the herb longer
  • Hercules takes a long time to flower, but its leaves are coarser than others, so it's best to harvest early when the plants are young and leaves are still tender

Dill in Your Garden Starts With Seeds

One of the most popular herbs, dill lends a unique flavor to many dishes, but what you may not hear very often is how beautiful dill is growing in your garden, both when it's fresh, feathery and bountiful, like the tops of a carrot (which is a relative) and when it produces the spiny flowers that look like yellow Queen Anne's Lace.

From the outset you should know that dill doesn't necessarily like to be moved, especially when it's small. Further, seedlings emerge in about 10 days, germination takes from 21 to 25 days and harvest can usually take place within 57 to 70 days. Soil quality doesn't (necessarily) hamper how well it grows, but compost will certainly give it a boost. Gardening Know How has additional advice about how to start dill:

"The best way to grow dill is directly from seeds rather than from a transplant. Planting dill seed is easy. Dill planting is simply done by scattering the seeds in the desired location after the last frost, then lightly cover the seeds with soil. Water the area thoroughly."1

Finding a spot in the back of your garden is also a good idea as its height can conceal things you've planted around it. Another idea is to sow dill seeds close to a wall or fence because dill gets so tall, a brisk wind can break the slender stalks. It may not kill the plant, but it could prevent them from standing upright.

You can remedy this by using slender stakes to loosely anchor the plants once they've reached a few feet in height, because, as mentioned, they can grow 3 or 4 feet high and even taller. Until the tiny, feathery fronds begin emerging above the soil surface, you may want to keep the ground slightly moist, especially in dry weather. You don't need to thin dill sprouts, as they like having the mutual support of the other seedlings to keep them standing.

How to Grow Dill for Herbal Use

With dill, you get multiple benefits, as the green leaves are good for cooking, they're easy to dry to use later and the flowers produce seeds that are also useful in recipes and can be saved to expand your dill crop for the next season.

When dill weed gets tall enough to harvest, be aware that hot weather brings on bud formation, called bolting or the colloquial "going to seed." If you want to keep using the dill for culinary endeavors, you'll want to impede the growth of the seed-producing flowers. Once a dill plant begins flowering, the foliage backs off almost entirely.

If you know what to look for, you can prevent dill from flowering too early. The plant becomes "leggy," the stems begin thickening and the feathery leaves become more sparse. To prevent flowering, you need to literally nip them in the bud when they begin forming. This also ensures a bushier plant. Once it decides to bolt, though, it will.

One way to get the best of both worlds is to plant dill at intervals to ensure you have at least some of the dill weed in its earlier stage. Make sure you save some room in your garden plots for later seed sowing.

As for snipping dill weed to dry and have it at the ready in your kitchen, you can dry it to store in an airtight container for several months or even a few years, although in time it will lose its amazing pungency. To dry dill weed, spread the stems on a screen in a cool, dark place. Once dried, you can also use plastic bags to freeze the herbs, but be sure to press all the air out to retain the most flavor.

Let Dill Flower for Seed Production

If you want your dill to flower for the express purpose of harvesting the seeds, Garden Know How notes that the best thing to do, basically, is nothing:

"Allow the plant to grow without trimming until it goes into bloom. Once dill weed plants go into bloom, they'll stop growing leaves, so make sure that you don't harvest any leaves from that plant. The dill flower will fade and will develop the seed pods. When the seed pods have turned brown, cut the whole flower head off and place in a paper bag. Gently shake the bag. The seeds will fall out of the flower head and seed pods and you'll be able to separate the seeds from the waste."2

You can also snip off the flower-bearing stems before they've dried completely and hang them upside down in a warm, dry location. Once you've collected the seeds, store them in a tightly closed glass jar in a cool, dark place. Although they'll lose some of their pungency after a year or so, if you harvest plenty, you'll have plenty.

It may seem like a bit of trouble, but to quickly and easily separate the seeds from the chaff or dried bits of the plant, Heirloom Organics suggests the following:

"Spread a sheet out on the grass, set a portable fan at one edge of the sheet facing the center, and turn it to 'low.' Pour the collected seed in front of the fan's breeze, and it will blow away the light chaff, allowing the heavier seed to collect on the sheet below. Store dill seed as you would dried leaves."3

Another idea is to save your dill seeds by keeping them in pickle vinegar. When they turn brown, they're very flavorful and become more so the longer they're in the vinegar.

Companion Plants and Beneficial Insects

Companion planting is all about locating certain herbs, vegetables and other plants in close proximity to benefit all the plants at the same time. Asparagus, cucumbers, basil, onions, lettuce and crucifers like cabbage are good companions, while peppers, potatoes, cilantro, eggplant and lavender are not.

Pests — and aphids may be the worst, often exacerbating disease — are the thing to watch for to ensure healthy plants. Often, getting rid of aphids is the best method.

That said, there's such a thing as beneficial insects, but spraying insecticides on your garden often kills these helpful bugs. Experienced gardeners know these "good guys" can help create a symbiotic atmosphere for your entire garden. Dill can help attract some of the most common beneficial insects, such as:

  • Hover flies look like tiny bees that fly like drones and lay eggs near aphid colonies so the hover fly larvae can begin eating aphids as soon as they hatch, controlling the majority of an aphid population.
  • Parasitic wasps can't sting, but do have an ovipositor they use to pierce a wide range of unwanted pests to deposit their eggs, which, when hatched, feed on the bad insect. This cycle, repeated several times a year, is better than insecticides.
  • Ladybugs are a good insect to attract to your garden because they help get rid of pests like aphids, mites and scale, a small, oval bug that sucks the life out of plants and excretes mold- and fungus-causing sap. Ladybugs like pollen, which plants like dill produce.
  • Praying mantises are interesting, beautiful and carnivorous, eating aphids, leafhoppers, spiders, crickets and other larger pests, helping to maintain a healthy ecological balance in your garden.
  • Honeybees pollinate flowers, including dill, which is crucial to healthy plant growth. Pollen and nectar are important to the survival of honeybees; more honeybee pollination means a healthier garden.

Additionally, according to Heirloom Organics, black swallowtail butterfly larvae depend on dill as a food source.

Benefits of Dill Oil

Dill oil has been used since the time of the Roman gladiators, who purportedly used it to quell nervousness and stress. It was also rumored to be an effective love potion.

Dill oil comes from two varieties: European dill (Anethum graveolens), grown where its name implies and parts of the Middle East and the U.S., and Indian dill (Anethum Sowa). There are around 10 compounds that give dill its unique aroma, with numerous but separate phytochemicals from the seeds as opposed to the "weed."

Dill oil can come from the seeds as well as from the graceful-looking leaves and each has a different smell. Oil from the seeds may remind you of caraway seeds due to its high carvone content. Used in aromatherapy, it has a fresh, spicy, grassy aroma. The carvone in dill seeds is identified as antimicrobial. Mixed with lotions or creams, dill oil is used for wound healing. It's also known as an antispasmodic because of its ability to calm, ease tension and have a sedative effect.

Dill oil is noted as aiding digestive issues such as constipation and upset stomach, and helps keep gas from forming (carminative). There's evidence that it may have other diverse uses as reducing mouth and throat inflammation and treating urinary tract infections (UTIs).

One study suggests that mixing dill oil with chamomile tea may help alleviate attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children and protect against head lice if it's rubbed on the scalp. Pregnant women are advised against using dill oil internally, although it has a reputation of increasing the flow of milk production and easing colic in babies. Gardenware says:

"To brew a stomach-soothing tea, use [2] teaspoons of mashed seeds per cup of boiling water. Steep for [10] minutes. Drink up to [3] cups a day. In a tincture, take 1/2 to 1 teaspoon up to three times a day. To treat colic or gas in children under [2], give small amounts of a weak tea. Many herbalists recommend combining dill and fennel to ease colic in infants."4

Growing Potted Dill Indoors

Planet Natural says that increased indoor gardening has resulted in products designed to make year-round herb growing more efficient and successful, and added:

"Truth is, growing sustained, harvestable amounts of herbs indoors require long periods of intense light. Abundant light is also required for plants to produce the oils that give herbs their flavor. Cool fluorescent grow lights are an improvement over your kitchen fluorescents if properly positioned and reflected. And the new generation of high-intensity discharge lamps give the expert grower the possibility of large harvests."5

Do It Yourself6 maintains that the best times to plant dill indoors is between October and early spring, with harvesting dill from your own kitchen windowsill in six to eight weeks a very real possibility using five easy steps:

  1. Fill 6- to 8-inch pots with drainage holes at the bottom to just over three-quarters full of compost-rich, easily drained soil. Plant seeds about 9 inches apart.
  2. Dill loves sunlight, so if light doesn't reach your pots for at least six hours a day, use grow lights for 12 hours a day. Fluorescent grow lights should be placed about 8 inches above the plants, while high-intensity lights like sodium lights should be several feet higher than your herbs.
  3. Dill should be fertilized every six weeks with a natural half-strength liquid or fish fertilizer. While dill is somewhat drought-resistant, it grows better inside when watered regularly. Water until the soil is moist, then let the soil dry in between.
  4. Dill tends to grow tall, so unless it's a dwarf variety, use a slender stake fastened loosely for future adjustment if the plant wants to begin listing sideways.
  5. Once flower buds form, leaf production will cease, so keep harvesting your dill, even it's just to slow flower formation. If you want the herb, not the seeds, cut the plant down to a few inches and your dill should grow back in about eight weeks.
Health Benefits of Family Meal Time
Thu, 25 May 2017 05:00:00 GMT

By Dr. Mercola

Finding time to eat meals together as a family is a simple way to improve your family bond and, beyond that, reap significant benefits to your health and quality of life. Contrary to popular belief, many American families do make the time for family meals. A Gallup Poll revealed that 53 percent of adults with children younger than 18 years say they eat dinner together at home six or seven nights a week. This averages out to 5.1 dinners together as a family per week.1

If your schedule or lifestyle currently does not allow for family meal times (remember that the benefits are gleaned by eating together at any time of day, even breakfast or lunch), tweaking your activities, work schedule and meal planning to do so will pay off in spades.

Why Eat Together as a Family?

Writing in the Archives of Iranian Medicine, researchers described family dinner as a “proxy of family connectedness,” one that may influence mental health.2 In fact, children who ate dinner together five or more times a week were less likely to suffer from mental disorders as well as obesity.

“Such simple recommendations for consuming family dinner for families may be feasible, sustainable and effective for health promotion and disease prevention,” they wrote. Indeed, it’s not the first time such significant effects have been linked to dining together.3

In 2010, “The Importance of Family Dinners VI” report from CASAColumbia at Columbia University revealed that teens who have frequent family dinners (five to seven per week) were less likely to engage in risky behaviors than those who had less than three family dinners per week. Specifically, teens who did not eat frequent family dinners had double the likelihood of using tobacco, nearly double the risk of having used alcohol and a 1.5 greater likelihood of having used marijuana.4

Teens who did not eat with their families often were also much more likely to say they could access marijuana or prescription drugs to abuse in one hour or less, while teens who ate frequent family dinners had no such access. Teen parents may be surprised to learn that 72 percent of the teens surveyed said they think of frequent family dinners as very or fairly important.

One of the straightforward reasons why is because it allows time for parents to sit down and talk with their children and teens about what’s going on in their lives, with their friends and at school. Joseph A. Califano Jr., CASA founder and chairman and former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, said:

“We have long known that the more often children have dinner with their parents the less likely they are to smoke, drink or use drugs. We can now confirm another positive effect of family dinners — that the more often teens have dinner with their parents, the more likely they are to report talking to their parents about what’s going on in their lives. … In today’s busy and overscheduled world, taking the time to come together for dinner really makes a difference in a child’s life.”

Barriers to Family Meal Time?

Using data from the American Time Use Survey, researchers deconstructed family meals in the U.S. to determine what some of the key influences were in the odds of getting together for a meal, measured as “eating at all with children” or “having a family dinner.”

Single men were less likely to do either compared to men who were partnered or married, and married women were more likely to eat with their children or have family dinner compared to married men. Employment status also influenced the odds of having a family meal, but only for women, not men. The researchers noted:5

“Among dual-headed households, women had lower odds of eating a family dinner when both parents were employed compared [to] a dual-headed household with employed male/non-employed female … Family structure, parental gender and employment status all influence the odds of having a family dinner.”

If your work schedule precludes sitting down for a family dinner, adjust your family mealtime to earlier in the day — even an early breakfast. This is also a useful strategy for families with multiple after-school or evening activities and is, in fact, one I recommend for all families looking to optimize their health.

Move Your Family ‘Dinner’ as Early in the Day as You Can

In terms of your health, the earlier you eat your dinner the better — ideally at least three hours prior to bed. if you can, and if you can’t then ideally you should eat a very light meal. In fact, for adults, eating two meals a day may be closer to ideal, and particularly eating them in a window of six to eight consecutive hours (such as breakfast and lunch OR lunch and dinner).

As mentioned, if you choose to eat dinner, it's important to avoid eating late, ideally finishing up at least three hours before going to bed, as that is your most metabolically lowered state. This will promote good mitochondrial and overall health while preventing cellular damage from occurring.

In short, since your body uses the least number of calories when sleeping, adding excess fuel at this time will generate excessive free radicals that will damage your tissues, accelerate aging and contribute to chronic disease. While children and teens will also benefit from avoiding late-night eating, they do not need to restrict their meals to two a day. They likely need three square meals a day unless they're overweight.

For kids and teens, the type of food they eat would be a primary consideration. Ideally, all of their meals would revolve around eating real food — not processed foods, fast food and sugary snacks. Drinking plenty of pure water and avoiding sugary beverages is another key consideration. To sum up, don’t eat much before bed! While the social value of eating together as a family is huge, you can get that connection by eating at any time of day.

Family Meals Are Better for Your Waistline and Emotional Well-Being

Getting back to why it’s so important to eat with your family, research published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior revealed that frequent family meals may have a protective effect on the mental health of adolescents.6 Those who shared five or more family meals per week had fewer depressive symptoms and emotional difficulties along with better emotional well-being. The protective link was particularly strong for depressive symptoms in girls.

Meanwhile, frequent family dinners along with consistent dinnertime routines were associated with lower body mass index (BMI) scores in children, which suggests it may help prevent childhood obesity.7

Again, it’s the eating together that counts, not the meal time. As such, research also shows that eating breakfast together has benefits. “Family breakfast frequency was associated with several markers of better diet quality … and lower risk for overweight/obesity in adolescents,” researchers concluded.8 In addition:

  • Research shows that children who share family meals three or more times a week are more likely to be in a healthy weight range and make better food choices. They're more likely to eat healthy foods and less likely to eat unhealthy ones, and also less likely to develop eating disorders.9
  • A Cornell University study found that families (both adults and children) who eat dinner in their kitchen or dining rooms have significantly lower BMIs than families who eat elsewhere. For boys, remaining at the table until everyone is finished with eating was also associated with a lower BMI.10
  • Researchers at the European Conference on Obesity reported that children who don't eat dinner with their parents at least twice weekly are 40 percent more likely to be overweight than those who do.11

Other research shows that with each additional family dinner, adolescents have:12,13

  • Higher self-esteem and life satisfaction
  • More trusting and helpful behaviors toward others and better relationships with their parents
  • Better vocabulary and academic performance
  • Lower teen pregnancy rates and truancy14
  • Increased resilience to stress

A Successful Family Meal Should Be Media-Free

Lower parent dinnertime media use is also associated with better health outcomes in children,15 which is why it’s important for your family meal time to be free of cellphones, TV and other forms of media. Use the time to connect with your kids and really listen to what they have to say.

Also try involving your kids in the dinner-making process (as well as meal planning), and then asking a simple question, like what was the best thing about your child’s day, or what was something that made your child feel stressed.16 In the Journal of Marriage and Family, researchers even concluded, "The effects of family dinners on children depend on the extent to which parents use the time to engage with their children and learn about their day-to-day lives."17,18

If you’re at a loss of what to talk about, The Family Dinner Project has a wealth of conversation starters grouped by different ages. “A well-worded question is the quickest way to connect after a long day,” they say. “We call them starters because we imagine they will spark a deeper conversation about the things that matter to you.” For example:19

  • Ages 2 to 7: What is your favorite silly face to make? Name three things that are fun for you.
  • Ages 8 to 13: Make up three silly new traditions for our family. What are you most looking forward to about a new school year (or fall)?
  • Ages 14 to 100: What is your most unusual talent? Demonstrate it! If you could create a school dedicated to fun, what would it be like? What classes would be taught there?

Before Family Meals Comes Meal Planning

Your good intentions of sitting down to a family meal can quickly be eliminated if you realize you don’t know what’s for dinner. Meal planning can circumvent this by helping you to map out a week or so in advance what you’ll be eating when during the week.

Not only will this help you to eat healthier (there’ll be less likelihood that you’ll resort to fast food), but it can cut back on food waste while lessening the stress of figuring out what to eat. And while it might seem cumbersome to take time to plan your meals, it will actually save you time in the long run. As Wellness Mama put it:20

“Another great benefit of meal planning is the time it saves. Planning ahead allows me to cook things in bulk and freeze for a future meal or make extra of a protein to use in a quick meal later in the week. In the winter, I cook a lot of slow-cooker meals and pre-make many of these to keep in the freezer so that I can just stick one in the Crock-Pot and go in the morning on busy days.”

Meal planning may be as simple or complex as you like (from jotting down your basic meals on a calendar to creating spreadsheets complete with every necessary ingredient). Choose a format that works for you, then set aside a time, such as Sunday mornings or Friday nights, to figure out what your family will eat this coming week.

Be sure to figure in plenty of variety for flavor and nutrition, and choose real-food recipes, not those that require processed ingredients. You’ll likely find that the more your family eats together, the more you’ll want to keep doing it. An added bonus is that you can teach your children the basics of cooking and pass down traditional cooking methods as you prepare your meal. Each child can play a role, from setting the table to clearing up dishes, helping establish confidence and responsibility.

Ultimately, if you value the importance of a family meal, you must make it a priority. This might mean you pack up a healthy meal to eat picnic-style after soccer practice some nights or get up early to eat a sit-down meal before you all set off for the day. Strive to eat together as often as you can, scheduling nonessential activities around your mealtimes and not the other way around.