Updated: Nov 9, 2022
The term ‘self-sufficient’ has been floating around for years, but as we’ve all watched the world descend farther and farther into chaos, it's become more evident to me that it’s time to look back on yesteryears and relearn the lessons in self-reliance that our grandparents knew.
I grew up in a home where all of our food was grown, hunted, foraged, or traded for from other family members. I remember making ice cream in an old churn machine and butchering deer and elk as a family in the kitchen. I remember feeding the laundry by hand through the turn-style wringer and hanging it to dry on the line outside.
I also remember thinking the whole thing was crazy and being embarrassed that my friends didn’t live that way. Now in hindsight, I would give anything to go back in time and pay more attention. To learn my grandmother's canning secrets, and figure out how she made that heavy white soap out of bear fat.
To understand how my grandfather built our family home from the ground up, and learn the art of framing and building and masonry. Consumerism was not a word in our family home. We reused tin foil, and cookies were packed in the wax paper taken out of cereal boxes. Ziplock bags were washed and used until they would zip no more and we slept under quilts made from the clothing we had worn out.
Now, as I embark on this homesteading journey learning and hopefully teaching some of you the skills my grandmother knew by heart, I hope she is smiling down on me. Which leads us to this list of 15 ways you can become more self-sufficient today by going back to old teachings I learned from Granny.
What Does it Mean to be Self Sufficient?
Does it mean living off of the land or off the grid? Does it mean surviving on tree bark and recycling urine? According to Merriam Webster, the meaning of self sufficient is: ‘The ability to maintain oneself without outside aid. Capable of providing for one's own needs.’
But, don’t worry, there’s no need to take drastic measures. I don’t believe that it’s possible or even all that desirable to be 100% self-sufficient. Instead, focus on the small steps you can take to increase your level of self-sufficiency. Strive to do all that you can for yourself, and when the need arises, look to your local community to fulfill it.
If you can’t grow a garden, or raise and butcher your own meat, don’t worry, chances are someone in your community can and does. Remember that long before the grocery store, our ancestors got everything they needed from their local communities, not from the Amazon Fulfilment Department.
Whether you’re dreaming of embarking on a homesteading journey, or are simply a city dweller looking to live a more sustainable life, in this article we’ll cover 15 simple ways you can become more self-sufficient today.
#1 Grow Your Own Fruits, Vegetables, and Herbs
I grew up in a generational home. My grandparents, uncles, mother, and me. There was no grass in our backyard. Instead, it was filled with vegetables and fruit trees. I spent my childhood sitting out there for hours snacking on food pulled fresh from the earth. So, for me, this is one of the most important steps in self-sustainability.
If there’s only been one takeaway from what we’ve all been through in the last few years, it’s that our food system is more fragile than we ever could have guessed. Not a good realization when you consider that food is a basic need for every living thing. These days, relying 100% on a broken system feels like a risk I’m not willing to take.
You may be thinking however that there’s no way you can grow your food. But, the truth is that whether you live in an apartment, a home with a small yard, or real acreage you can in fact grow at least some of your own food. Even a single tomato, squash, or pot of herbs can help you to be just a little more self-sufficient.
#2 Plant Fruit Trees
Some of my favorite childhood memories are the hours I spent climbing the apricot trees in the backyard and eating those sweet orange fruits to my heart's content. We had apricot, plumb, apple, pear, and cherry trees but the apricots were always my favorite.
One thing to keep in mind is that this one is a little more of an investment than growing vegetables and herbs. Not that trees are pricey per se, but they do take time to establish and can often take years before they begin fruiting.
The other thing to consider is size and space, however, there are many wonderful dwarf varieties that can be grown indoors on a patio in a large pot. One of my uncles has a greenhouse where he grows figs, and lemons in dwarf varieties and it’s wonderful to have access to fruits that wouldn’t otherwise grow in the Colorado climate. My favorite place to get trees is Stark Bros. (Not an affiliate link, just my favorite.)
#3 Grow Food From Scraps
This is one of my favorite ways to get more bang for your buck on the groceries you do buy. In most cases, it’s quick and easy and doesn’t usually take much more space than a single pot. To find out more, check out our list of 25 Foods You Can Grow or Regrow From the Grocery Store.
#4 Preserve Your Own Food
This is a big one for us. The basement of our familial home was a virtual grocery store. My grandmother had more food preserved than our family of 7 could have eaten in 2 lifetimes. As a child, I thought it was absurd and until now I never appreciated the absolute beauty of those rows and rows of jars preserved to perfection.
If you’re striving to be self-sufficient food preservation is one of the most important skills you can learn. If you are growing food, chances are you’re growing more than you can eat at once so preservation will help to keep your hard work fresh and ready to eat throughout the year. But, even if you don’t grow your own food, food preservation such as canning, dehydrating, and freezing can still help you to be more self-sufficient.
For us, as first-year homesteaders, learning to preserve food has been an essential experience and as I said, I would give anything to have my grandmother teach me the secrets of the art of food preservation. Since it was my first garden, we managed to grow enough food this year to eat, but not enough to preserve in large quantities.
That however does not mean I haven’t been putting food up for the winter. Each type of produce has a season, and each week there is a new item on deep discount at my local grocery store. For instance early in the summer when corn was 5 ears for a dollar I bought as much as I could carry without looking like a crazy person. I then processed and froze all of it and even used the corn cobs to make Corn Cob Jelly.
#5 Cook and Bake From Scratch
Growing up, I don’t remember eating anything that came from a box except Cheerios, Cream of Wheat, and pasta. Cakes, bread, ice cream, you name it, my grandmother made it. I can still remember the smell of baking bread that filled the house as she made bread in big batches to last the week. And, I would give just about anything to get a hold of that specific bread recipe.
The more foods you can cook from scratch the less you will be dependent on store-bought food aside from the basic staples saving you money while being healthy and tasty. When we moved up onto our homestead I started cooking everything from scratch. Because of that, I have reduced our weekly grocery bill by nearly three-fourths. Between the garden, and the large stockpile of meats we already had, a normal trip to the grocery store includes little more than eggs (the chickens aren’t laying yet), milk, cheese, flour, sugar, and whatever snack-type items I need for packing my husbands lunches.
#6 Learn the Medicinal Uses of Herbs and Plants
Not long ago, we lived in a time when natural and herbal medicine was the norm, not the fringe. Now, while I am in no way implying that you should try to treat every single ailment with herbs, for minor issues, often times a natural remedy will do.
There are plenty of plants and herbs that you can grow or forage that have medicinal uses. For instance this year we grew Borage, St John’s Wart, Mint, and Yarrow in our garden. And On a recent mushroom hunting trip, we also foraged Osha and Wild Rose Hips. Each of these plants has various uses from anti-inflammatory properties to stomach and headache relief. Dried and powdered yarrow leaves can be used to stop bleeding. Osha is a great immune booster for warding off winter colds. (Stay tuned, because as I harvest and process each of these plants I’ll post all of the instructions for you!)
#7 Learn to Hunt and/or Fish
This is one area where the transfer of knowledge was thankfully not lost through the generations for me. My grandfather's knowledge of hunting and fishing was instilled in my uncles who still do it to this day and have been teaching my husband and me. Of course grew up fishing, so that knowledge has always been with me. But although I remember tromping through the woods carrying riffles that were longer than I was tall, and I remember nights spent butchering deer and elk with my family, I have never personally hunted so having a teacher in this is invaluable.
Now, I know this one is not for everyone. But, if you are a meat eater one of the best things you can do to provide food for yourself is to learn to hunt and or fish. Being able to provide your own meat is a great way to be less dependent on the grocery store.
If you’ve never hunted or fished before, be sure to check with your local wildlife department for any local laws, training, licensing, or registration that may be required. Another thing to note is that in many states (definitely in Colorado), even if you own a large portion of land, it is not legal to hunt on your own property without proper licensing.
#8 Learn to Forage for Food
This again is something that has thankfully been passed down through my family and each year my husband and I spend the monsoon season foraging for mushrooms in the wild with my uncle and during those trips I usually gather any other available bounty from the forest to bring home. This year, on our most recent mushroom hunting trip I was able to harvest enough wild Osha to prepare herbal tinctures to store for all those winter colds.
Foraging, also known as finding food in the wild is another great way to supplement your food supply. Whether you live in the city, the swamp or the forest, edible plants are everywhere oftentimes right in your front yard. For example, dandelions often thought of as a weed is 100% edible from the roots to the leaves and flowers. This year we harvested all of the dandelions from our yard and made a big batch of dandelion syrup. It was so good, we’ve already used up every last drop on morning pancakes and will now have to wait till next year to make more!
This is one of those things I strongly suggest you don’t try to DIY or self-teach. Many edible plants have poisonous if not downright deadly look-a-likes and a single misidentification could do you and your family some major harm. Find yourself a trusted book for the region you live in and take some classes or get a guide. Never under any circumstances eat anything found in the wild that you are not 100% certain of.
#9 Raise a Backyard Flock
If hunting and fishing are not your cups of tea, you could also consider raising a backyard flock of chickens, quail, ducks, or turkeys. The best part about these feathered friends is that you don’t have to butcher them to get food. Once they reach maturity they lay delicious eggs for you on a daily basis and provide an excellent source of protein as well as endless hours of entertainment. Really, we call it chicken TV.
This is our first time raising chickens and honestly, I had no idea that they were so entertaining or had such big personalities. Just be careful, Chicken Math is a real thing! It was my intent to have 15 chickens but I ended up with 30.
#10 Collect Rainwater
Water is another one of those basic life necessities, so if you’re going to be self-sufficient you’ll need a safe and reliable source of water such as a solar-powered well, but you can also make the most of another free source, rainwater.
Being able to collect and reuse rainwater is a great way to save money and become less dependent on the system. Keep in mind that rainwater is not the best for drinking as it will require filtering and boiling to remove any environmental toxins. But you can use it to water your garden, bath, hydrate livestock, and chickens, and even wash dishes.
We have been having plentiful rains this season, which is great because we’ve also been having issues with our well and the barrels and buckets of rainwater have been making not having running water bearable while we get our well up and running again.
#11 Learn to Compost Kitchen Scraps
This is one of my favorite self-sufficiency tips, particularly if you garden or grow your own food. Soil additives and fertilizers are pricey and lately in short supply. Composting is the perfect solution to these issues. There’s nothing quite like taking your kitchen and lawn scraps and clippings and turning them into rich black soil that you then use to grow more food. It’s the absolute essence of the circle of life. We actually use what is called Vermicomposting on our homestead. This is is the practice of composting using worms, it has the added benefit of creating beautiful compost, worm casting, and fish bait as well!
#12 Learn to Sew or Knit
Luckily for me, I learned this at an early age. (My mother still has the teddy bear I made her for mother’s day when I was 8 safely stored in a box.) It’s one of my most treasured skills and one that I love to teach to others.
I don’t really care for knitting. I tried it once, and as someone with a degree in fashion design who can make a wedding gown in a day, spending a week making a scarf is not my jam. But, whether you love to knit and hate to sew or vice versa, having a basic knowledge of both is a good step towards self-sustainability for a lot of reasons. From turning your hand-me-downs into clothing for the kids to making warm scarves and hats for the family being capable of at the very least repairing your own clothing is a good skill to have.
It’s one of those ‘vintage’ skills that's incredibly underrated and close to becoming extinct among modern generations. If you learn how to sew you can mend clothes instead of buying new ones and once you get your skill level up, you can even sew your own.
#13 Make Your Own Cleaning Products
My mother has always used plain old vinegar for basic cleaning, which has served her well. But this year was the first time I’ve ever tried to make my own cleaning products and I must say I was completely thrilled with the results, and even more so with the cost. For just pennies on the dollar, you can make everything from laundry detergent to glass cleaner and as an added bonus they are better for your home, your family, and even the planet so it’s a win, win. It’s a great step towards self-sustainability when you are capable of cleaning and disinfecting your home with a few basic ingredients that can be found in almost every single home in the country.
#14 Choose Cloth
For nearly every disposable product out there, from napkins to dryer sheets and sandwich bags to wipes and napkins, there is a cloth alternative. You can either buy store-bought cloth products or make your own from old t-shirts, if you check out the article above there are even instructions for making reusable dryer sheets.
As you enter into a journey of self-sustainability, ask yourself, is the product our ancestors used? People existed just fine, long before the invention of paper towels. That’s because they used and reused cloth.
#15 Learn to Up-cycle and Re-use
When my uncle brought me some extra cucumber starts this spring, he brought them in solo cups and told me he had been using them for 3 seasons. When I planted the starts, there was no damage, so I put them in my pile of pots to save for next season's starts, it can be as simple as that. Learning to reuse and recycle will save you money, reduce your reliance on the system, and reduce the number of random things you have lying around.
If there is nothing else on this list that you feel is the right step for where you are in life right now, learn to “reduce, re-use, recycle.” Shy away from consumerism, and learn to use what you have on hand. From reusing broken cups and jars as planter pots to turning old t-shirts into totes and rags. Whatever it is you need, think about ways that you could achieve the same outcome without making a purchase.
Relearning Old Lessons in Self Sustainability
So, there you have it, 15 simple steps from days gone by that you can take to create a more self-sufficient life for yourself. As you start on a path of becoming more reliant on yourself keep in mind that we live in a society that promotes materialism and consumption, but if each of us took even small steps to use less we could change the world as well as our lives.
Are you on a journey towards self-sufficiency? If so, what ideas would you add to this list? We’d love to know, tell us all about them in the comments below, and as always, until next time: