Our Homesteading Essentials

Nutrient Dense Foods

Calories that count

We learned in the first post in this series that the fundamental purpose of a homestead is to grow calories to sustain the lives of the people who live on it.

If you make all your important homestead decisions from the standpoint of, “Will this thing I am thinking of planting, raising, buying, etc. contribute high-quality calories either directly or indirectly?” you will make good decisions and avoid hasty, emotionally-driven decisions that end up costing you time and money.

If you are a Tall homesteader*, this is even more important because you can’t afford wasted space.

The most important decision you will make is what foods you want your homestead to provide. Here is a list, in no particular order, of the things that will give you the most bang for your calorie buck:

Pumpkin – First of all, please don’t grow and cook pumpkins intended for jack-o-lanterns. These are bred for size and that lovely orange color to highlight your fall decor.

Pumpkins bred for eating come in a variety of colors and sizes..usually strange-looking ones on both counts (see the photo below). Good eating pumpkin varieties include: Cheese pumpkin, Cinderella pumpkin, white Caspar, and for easy pumpkin seed harvesting, choose one of the hull-less varieties like Lady Godiva . If you’re growing pumpkins in a small space, you could try trellising small varieties or creating a “pumpkin hill” for larger ones.

Pumpkins are powerhouses of nutrition. The meat is rich in beta-carotene, potassium, and antioxidants to fight off free radical damage as well as vitamins A, C, E, and riboflavin. It’s a wonderful source of lutein and zeaxanthin, which support eye health and reduces the risk of macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in the elderly. Regardless of your age, now is the time to start taking care of your eyes.

The seeds are delicious and packed with health benefits also. Pepitas (dried and shelled pumpkin seeds) are a great source of healthy fats including omega -3 fatty acids, zinc, calcium, iron, phytochemical, and have been shown to reduce the formation of calcium-oxalate kidney stones (the most common ones).

To store your pumpkins after harvest, either cure them (let them sit outside out of direct sun for a few days) then store them in a cool (not freezing) dark place or cook and freeze the flesh. A thousand people will tell you differently, but canning mashed pumpkin isn’t considered safe because it is too dense for the canning process to kill microbes efficiently.

Here is a nice variety of seeds to grow all the pumpkins you need.

Eggs – You can’t get much closer to a perfect food than eggs. Once vilified for their cholesterol content, decades of research have proven the lowly egg was unjustly accused and it should be returned to its rightful place on our menu.

Eggs, like pumpkin, contain the carotenoids lutein and xeaxanthin which help fight macular degeneration. Additionally, the choline in egg yolks aid brain development and may enhance memory. An egg delivers 7 grams of high-quality protein in its 75 calories along with iron, vitamins. Its 5 grams of healthy fat will stave off a hunger attack and keep you powering on until your next meal.

With all that said, keep in mind that the quality of the nutrition in an egg depends upon the quality of the feed consumed by the chicken that laid it. The best way to make sure you’re eating top-notch eggs is to raise and feed your own chickens. You can boost the nutritional value of your eggs by feeding your chickens a healthy basic diet, supplementing with fresh-grown fodder (micro greens), and allowing them to free range when possible on pasture.

If you’re working with a Tall-sized homestead, a small flock of 2-3 chickens will produce a dozen or so eggs per week. A lot of cities are allowing “backyard chickens” these days. Most ordinances don’t allow roosters, but your hens will lay just fine without one, the eggs just won’t be fertile. You could grow a specially-formulated chicken pasture in place of your lawn. The chickens will be happy to keep it mowed for you.

Winter squash – Winter squash has similar nutrients to the other rich yellow/ orange fleshed foods we’ve mentioned, pumpkin and sweet potato. My favorite variety of winter squash is the blue Hubbard. It grows enormous fruit, I had three this year that were over 30 pounds each. Each squash produced 18 quarts for my freezer ( I follow the pumpkin rule and I don’t can my squash either). For small homesteads, it’s a more efficient use of space to grow a few enormous squash from 2 or 3 vines.

Tomatoes – Nothing says “summer garden” like a vine-ripened tomato. All varieties of tomatoes provide a powerhouse of vitamins A, C, B3, B5, B6, E, and K as well as antioxidants. You can boost the nutritional punch of your tomatoes even more by choosing the darker varieties containing more lycopene which can help ward of cancers and heart disease and helps skin resist aging. My favorite varieties are Cherokee, Black Beauty, and Brad’s Atomic Grape.

If you have the room to grow enough tomatoes to preserve, you’ll want the “sauce” varieties, Amish Paste or San Marzano Lungo. These “drier” tomatoes have more flesh and less gel and seeds.

If tomatoes tend to burn your tongue, try the less acidic yellow varieties

Sweet potatoes – Sweet potatoes are not a true potato (they are more closely related to morning glory) and therefore not a nightshade, if you are avoiding those. Sweet potatoes belong in your nutrient-dense garden because in addition to the usual yellow/ orange food benefits of beta carotene and vitamin A, they are a rich source of manganese, providing 50% of your daily requirement. They also contain anthocyanin to help protect your brain from free-radical damage and fiber to keep your gut flora flourishing. Choose varieties with dark orange or purple flesh.

Dark leafy greens– Popeye had it right when he opted for spinach, and you should too. Dark, leafy greens like spinach, kale, collards, chard, etc. are full of iron, folate, calcium, vitamin K, magnesium, potassium, and fiber. Most of these are very cold hardy so a simple cold-frame or low-tunnel can provide you with fresh greens all winter long. If you live in a warm area and struggle to grow regular spinach, try planting Malabar spinach. It’s a climbing plant, so trellis it, and harvest the tender leaves to use just like spinach.

Meat– There are certainly successful, happy homesteaders who eat a plant-based diet and consume little or no meat. They usually have to source more of their nutrition off their homestead in order to get all the amino acids and other nutrients provided by meat.

For the rest of us, we raise animals for meat. If you are on a Tall homestead, you can still raise at least part of the meat you need by keeping chickens, quail, and, rabbits. All three of these provide harvestable meat in about 8 weeks (even the chicken if you raise some Cornish Crosses), a decided advantage over cows or sheep.

The quality of the meat you harvest from your homestead will depend on the quality of the feed you provide.

Rabbits and chickens can be grown out in low houses directly on the ground (called “tractors”) which allow them to graze on the fresh pasture you provide. Rabbit tractors need a wire floor or the rabbits will dig their way out. Skids on the bottom of the rabbit tractor make it easy to move it to fresh grass every day.

Chicken tractors are usually on wheels or skids so they can be moved every day or so to give the advantage of allowing the chickens to graze on new pasture using a poultry net like this to keep the chickens in and the predators out.

Quail are typically raised in grow-out cages with the roosters being harvested for meat and the hens left to produce eggs. There are also homesteads that build more natural aviary -type habitats for their quail. It makes collecting the eggs much harder, though, because quail rarely use a nest box, the hen just deposits the egg wherever she happens to be at the time. Quail are competent fliers, so whatever type of housing you choose must have either a high top to give them room to fly, or a very low top to prevent them from trying to fly up and breaking their necks on the top of the cage. Standard quail cages are less than a foot high.

Supplement your animals’ diet with home-grown micro-greens (fodder) and minerals not provided adequately in your pasture.

Animals on pasture still need species-appropriate feed every day to ensure a balanced diet. This can either be a homemade blend (be sure to research their dietary needs) or purchased at your local feed store or Tractor Supply.

Berries – Berries grow well just about everywhere. Find out what grows best in your climate. My homestead grows Goji (or wolf) berries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries. Of all of those, the blackberries grow best because they are native to the area and grow wild everywhere. I just harvest them with no other care whatsoever. Blueberries are easy to grow in containers, so they are a great option for Tall homesteads. You can plant them all around your place, and if you keep them trimmed nicely, they just look like ornamental shrubs. Most berry varieties provide vitamin C and antioxidants.

Legumes – These are peas and beans you grow for drying and storing. If you have room for some snap peas and bush green beans for eating fresh, definitely include those too. Most of the drying-type of peas and beans will be pole varieties, meaning they need something to climb. We use a cattle panel (it has large 4×4 weave) arched between two fence posts. it gives lots of room for the plants to climb and it makes harvesting very easy because the beans hang down through the wire squares so you just stand inside the arch and pick, the large weave makes it easy to get your hand through to fruit in the back. It also makes a gorgeous feature in your garden when it’s covered with plants.

These are just a few of the nutrient-dense foods you may want to include on your homestead, I’m sure I’ll add more as the time goes on, these are just the ones I started with and would recommend for homesteads of all sizes.

*For our purposes in this series, we’ve classified homesteads by size using Starbucks cup sizes: Tall homesteads are less than one acre, Grande homesteads are 1-5 acres, Venti are 5-15 acres and Trenta homesteads are 15 acres and up.