Eat Like a Pioneer Challenge: Lessons and Insights

Eat Like a Pioneer - Cold storage items for pantry

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to eat like a pioneer, back when people were more self reliant and worked hard to produce what they ate?

Have you wondered how hard it would really  be to achieve this goal?

As homesteaders and gardeners, we decided we were up to the challenge and decided  to start eating like pioneers.  Sort of.  We did allow ourselves to buy dairy (as we do not yet have a cow), and we did sneak in the odd chocolate bar, and at least a few bottles of Kahlua.  The intent was not to punish ourselves, but to get a reasonable appreciation for where we’re at, in terms of providing for ourselves, year-round.

Over the course of the summer and autumn we stocked up a plentiful winter pantry. In addition to what we grow, it gets filled with staples like oats, beans, lentils, sugar, flour, coffee & tea. (You can read more about this in the article: Stocking a Pantry) This year there were over 800  jars, carefully preserved from the food we grew in the garden and foraged in the wild. (You can read more about this  in the article: Creating a Homegrown Winter Pantry) There was a good stock of  pork in the freezer from the pigs we raised, and a nice stock of wild crafted wine ready to be bottled. We were even experimenting with fermented foods, sour dough, sauerkraut, apple cider vinegar, and at least a couple more (I forget!) Things were looking great.

In the late autumn as we were pulling up the last of the root vegetables and tucking them away in cold storage, we wondered: How long can we go just eating from what’s in the pantry?

The Eat Like A Pioneer Challenge!

Eat Like a Pioneer - Canning jars, dry good and storage
Canning jars, dry good and storage

We decided to embark on a  challenge to eat only what we had stored in the pantry for as long as possible. We figured that by depriving ourselves of convenience and luxuries we would soon figure out where we were weak, what we were missing. The ultimate goal is to be able to eat luxuriously from the food we grow and produce, right here on the homestead.

The Results

Eat like a Pioneer - From scratch cooking
Cooking from scratch is satisfying and rewarding

Spring has arrived and the snow is melting away. We will soon be working in the gardens again.  We are both eager to be eating fresh food again.  We’ve learned a lot about food and the challenges that come with trying to eat exclusively from what was stored in the pantry. In this challenge, there have been highs, and there have been lows but there are no regrets. We feel good, confident and ready for this lifestyle, more than ever before!

Eating Like a Pioneer: The Good

Eat Like a Pioneer - Growing your own food
Growing and preserving your own food is essential to eating well over the winter

Organic Healthy Ingredients

It feels good knowing that the ingredients that we are using are healthy and free of pesticides. Our only challenge is to grow a bit more of it, with more variety!  There are a lot of unwanted additives in everything, these days, and we really like knowing the exact ingredient and the origin of what we eat.  How much pesticide did you eat last year?  How about preservatives?  How about strange additives, and filler?  Dye?  Bleach?  Do you know?

Money Saving (Fuel and Frivolous purchases)

With so few trips to the store over the past six months, we’ve had great cost savings when it comes to fuel and wear and tear on the truck. I have read on-line that there is a big trend towards the “Eat From Your Pantry For One Month Challenge”. It’s a popular way to save money. I suppose our challenge is the hardcore extreme version of this?

Weather / Preparedness

There were a lot of storms this winter and at times, the driveway and roads to town were unusable for days at a time. There were also some lengthy week long  power outages. We didn’t have to worry about anything,  around here it was business as usual.

Improved Cooking & Baking Skills

We’ve become far more skilled at cooking meals from scratch. I can whip up pizza dough (and then a full pizza) almost as fast as you can order one, and mine will probably be better. Soups and stews come naturally as well. It’s a proud moment when you can stand in a pantry and look at a bunch of raw ingredients and come up with a delicious meal. There was a time when I would have stood there thinking “there is nothing to eat“, and would have run to the store.

Happy Accidents

When the apple wine turned sparkly it provided us some variety from the dry wine we seem to consistently produce. Another time, I accidentally dumped a jar of apple sauce into the tomato sauce I was making. Not wanting to waste food I decided to just go with it. Maybe no one would notice. Well, it turned out amazing (so amazing that it’s almost the standard).  Apple sauce in tomato sauce?  Blasphemy, right?  Try it.

Eating Like a Pioneer: The Bad

Eat Like a Pioneer - Cold storage items for pantry
Potatoes and root vegetables can last many months in cold/dark storage

Lack of Variety

While it seemed like we had  a wide range of food to choose from,  it just wasn’t enough. We started to crave things we didn’t have like mushrooms, cauliflower and spinach. We also started to desire fizzy cold beverages and anything other than apple juice. With practice this can certainly be remedied. There are many healthy fermented beverages with fizz and growing mushrooms is not difficult to learn. The biggest problem was probably meat. I am vegetarian but my husband enjoys eating meat. With only pork in the freezer, after a while no amount of creative cooking could mask the fact that it was “pork again”.

Overusing Recipes and Ingredients

I discovered that lentils taste really good when prepared correctly and we have a lot of them stored in the pantry. My husband went on “lentil strike” about a month ago deeming lentils banned from the food repertoire until further notice. You can get tired of the same ingredients week after week even if you are creative about preparing them. I have learned to not go overboard with certain ingredients.

Lack of Freshness

In March we started to crave fresh fruit. It had been such a long time since we had an apple, orange or pear. I went and bought some and they were gone in days. My husband who could often pass up the fruit bowl was eagerly helping himself each day. Fresh fruit was such a delight after so many months having gone without.

Running out of Ingredients

We hoped that we had estimated our food needs properly but we are on the verge of running out of  some things that we really enjoy eating and drinking.  Sugar is running low as is coffee. The apple juice is down to the last six mason jars full.  We have ideas about producing our own sugar that will alleviate this in future years.

Excess Ingredients

We ended up with too many of some items. We have barely dented the shelf of pickled green beans and dill pickles. There are about eight jars of rose petal jelly awaiting us, and so many rolled oats that we wont need more for several years! Although all of these things are truly delicious, we have eaten more than a reasonable amount of them. Fortunately it will all keep but I won’t be making any more of it this coming year.

Chickens Stopped Laying

This year the chickens started moulting in late September and they didn’t lay another egg for us until March. We usually have so many eggs that we are giving them away even into November. This halt in production was unexpected and I realized too late that I should have been preserving eggs much sooner.


Eat Like a Pioneer - Home-made Carrot wine
Home-made Carrot wine

On the whole we thought that this challenge went really well. Self sufficiency with food and eating like a pioneer is achievable. This experience, the good and the bad has shown us where we are weak, what we need to improve and has given us confidence to continue ahead on this path. We do need to learn some additional skills such as tapping maple and birch trees for syrup and raising honey bees, and creating various wild yeasts for baking. These skills will help us diversify our food sources and provide additional security. Although there are some items we will always need to buy such as: wheat/grains, salt, pepper, baking soda/powder, coffee and tea with some refinement we will be able to reduce our reliance and spending even more in the years to come.

PS As I write this, I do so drinking a glass of carrot wine.  We grew the carrots, turned them into wine, bottled it months ago, and just now, opened a bottle (slightly early, I might add.)  How does it taste?  Well, it actually has very little taste.  It does not taste like carrots.  Body?  Skimpy.  Anorexic.  Aroma?  Quite nice, although, somewhat lacking.  Color?  Absolutely gorgeous, a golden triumph.  Strength? POTENT.  Drinkability?  You can definitely buy worse.

That might not sound so great, and really, it isn’t.  There is vast room for improvement.  And you know, next years batch will be better.  And the year after that, better.  Taken together, this quirky wine is a wonderful metaphor for homesteading: not quite what anyone really expects, odd but intoxicating, constantly evolving, wonderful for the soul, and almost certain to get you drunk.


11 thoughts on “Eat Like a Pioneer Challenge: Lessons and Insights

  1. Jordan Charbonneau says:

    Love this! I’ve wanted to try something similar since reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. We’re currently still in the proccess of building our off grid home so I don’t think we’ll be strying too soon but I do think our biggest issue will be the fresh fruit! I’m hoping to plant varieties like Arkansas Black Apples that store really well. We’e also made cider and beer but have yet to try making wine. Carrot wine sounds like a great idea! Good luck with your future challenges 🙂

    • Charlotte says:

      Thanks so much Jordan. You are the second person to mention that book to me today, I am going to have to get a copy!!

      A friend of ours who is not yet living full time at their homestead is planting berry bushes and fruit trees in the spring. A great ideas for getting a head start in establishing plants. We planted lot as soon as we moved here but everything is still quite young. Patience I think is key. Eventually the fruit stock will start to produce more and we will also become accustomed to not having a fridge full of “out of season” or “Exotic” produce in the fridge.

      I was just told that carrot beer is something worth looking into. There are so many wonderful and exciting things to try!!

  2. Dana says:

    This is really inspiring! We have been on our homestead for 1 year come May. We are just heading into the colder months, but next season I am hoping to get the garden cracking properly. Our meat rabbits and dairy goat are now producing, and our laying chooks of course. I have a few raspberry and strawberry plants in, but I have an area that I want LOTS of them in. Ultimately I would like to live like you did long term!

    • Charlotte Walker says:

      Hi Dana! Nice to hear from you. We love reading your blog! We are really working on expanding our fruit plants, this past winter showed me that we really need a lot more! I eat half of them while picking which never helps. We would love some goats or a cow, we just can’t decide which. Do you like raising goats?

  3. Kathy says:

    This was so much fun to read! I love trying to do things the “old way.” I’m sure you’d improve each year you lived/cooked/ate this way. Our “ansisters” were pretty amazing and there’s a lot we could all learn from them. Thank you!

    • Charlotte Walker says:

      Glad you enjoyed it Kathy! I do often find myself wishing that I had asked a lot more questions when my grandparents were alive. If they were here today we would have so much to talk about!

  4. Stephanie says:

    WOW! I love it. We are trying to finish up our root cellar so we can do more of this. My husband is big on “balanced” every meal so I have a bit more work to do so we can have greens. Im working on growing belgium endive for a “green” its easy to grow, you should look into it. As for the reat Im on my way. We are waiting on the fruit trees to get big enough to harvest and potatoes are easy. Its the veggies and fruits that make it hard. Id love to know more in depth about how you did this.

    • Charlotte Walker says:

      Hi Stephanie, it’s wonderful that you have a root cellar. Its such a shame that so few homes have them anymore. I have never grown Belgium endive (I don’t think I’ve ever had an opportunity to taste it either)so I will look into that! There isn’t a vegetable that I don’t like …well other than Jeruselum artichokes. I just can’t seem to acquire a taste for those which is a shame because they are so easy to grow. Winter is arriving so I will be sitting down to write a lot more. Stay tuned as I will be writing more about food and pantries!

  5. Louise Houghton says:

    Hi Charlotte
    I love your blog. I am soooo envious of your pantry. I have this year preserved in various ways produce we have either grown or been gifted. We have been on our little homestead as I love to call it for just over two years and it is coming together but we have so much more to do and soooo many plans for next year when we hope to up things a gear or two. I have a blog as you can see where you can see the beginnings of our projects and future plans. I’d love any help or advice on anything you might see. I am going to follow you regularly as I found you through Pinterest.x

    • Charlotte Walker says:

      Hello Louise! I popped over to your website and I have to admit that I am a bit envious of your homestead journey in Wales. Living in the Welsh countryside used to be a dream of mine. Don’t get me wrong, I love it here too but you’ve certainly picked a wonderful setting! We love what we do and I think that makes all the difference. Keep in touch! I look forward to following your journey. I’ve got a facebook page as well with a great group of people that love to chat and share advice! You might enjoy it! All the best. C.

  6. Erin says:

    I can’t love this enough!! I’ve always had a profound appreciation for our forefathers and trailblazers who went without and lived this way. We are so decadent and spoiled these days. I love that you have done this challenge. Thank you for sharing it through your blog!!

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