When we first got chickens, I was told that they would be thrilled to eat our table scraps. But I wasn’t really sure what chickens could eat, or what they would like and dislike.
I was glad to learn that our flock could eat almost anything we had to throw at them! Here’s what the experts recommend…
Why a Balanced Diet is Important For Your Chickens
If you’re going to raise chickens, the most important aspect of day to day care is feeding them the proper diet. Get it right, and you’ll be rewarded with a happy flock of hens who lay tons of eggs for you!
Fail to do it correctly, though, and your chickens will not only fail to be productive in their egg laying, but they may also succumb to a variety of health problems, too.
Luckily, feeding chickens is pretty straightforward. You’ll want to start with a basic layer feed (this can be formulated as a mash, crumble, or pellet). For adult chickens, a pellet is usually recommended as it occurs in a more solid form and will be easier for your chickens to eat without creating a ton of waste.
Mash and crumble are both fine, too, but they can be a bit messy. These are more easily digested by young chicks, though.
The pellet, mash, or crumble, regardless of the form you choose, should be specifically formulated to meet the nutritional needs of your birds in all stages of their lives, from chick to adulthood. If you are raising laying chickens, you will need a different feed than if you are raising meat birds, too – so that’s something else to keep in mind.
In addition to the commercial feed, you will also want to feed your chickens some treats from time to time! Not only can throwing in a few treats cut down on the amount you have to spend at the feed store (as long as you are feeding treats you already have lying around, like table scraps), but it can supplement your chickens’ diet and provide them with valuable nutrients even if they aren’t able to free range.
Ideally, your feed should be high in protein (the percentage varies depending on the age of your chickens, with baby chickens needing more protein than adult birds).
Free range chickens rarely overeat, but they might gorge themselves on commercial feed (though this, too, is rare). Just make sure you don’t leave feed out overnight, as this can attract pests.
The exact amount your chickens need to be fed will vary depending on a multitude of factors. How many birds are you raising? What breed are they? Are they egg layers or meat producers? What time of year is it, and are your chickens free ranging?
As a very general rule of thumb, most chickens need about a pound and a half of chicken feed each week. This is very much a ballpark figure, though, so make sure you adjust accordingly depending on the needs of your unique flock.
You can feed your chickens once a day or more or less often, depending on your needs. Invest in a high-capacity feeder, and you may find that you need to add food only once a week or so. If you have lots of chickens, it may be worth your time to invest in multiple feeders even if you have a high-capacity feeder. That way, more dominant chickens won’t bully more submissive ones away from the food supply.
Pay close attention to the diet of your chickens. If you notice any change in their eating habits or health, there could be something off with the feed.
Some signs that the diet needs to be adjusted are pretty obvious. For example, you might notice that your chickens stop laying as many eggs. Sometimes, this drop in egg production has to do with the time of year. Chickens naturally lay fewer eggs during the colder months.
However, if that’s not the case, check the feed. The same goes for if your eggs are looking small or abnormal in any way.
Finally, if your chickens seem to be acting differently toward each other – perhaps they are more lethargic, or they are experiencing general unrest or unwanted behaviors like feather picking – it might be time to reevaluate what you are feeding your birds.
A Balanced Chicken Diet
While the right balance of nutrients for your chickens will depend based on the many factors I listed above, you’ll want to make sure your chickens are getting at least 90% of their nutrients from their feed. Read the labels!
A good feed will have protein, usually a plant-based protein, which is necessary for growth an energy. It will also have carbohydrates for energy along with certain vitamins and minerals. Chicken feed should also contain enzymes and fats which help your chickens absorb vitamins and digest their food properly.
Don’t Forget the Water
Water is just as important as feed – in some cases, even more so. While your chickens may be able to find the food that they need while foraging around the run, they are going to have a harder time finding water if you don’t supply it to them.
Make sure your chickens have access to fresh, clean water at all time. Buy a drinker designed specifically for chickens to use and never let your birds run out. Although this is especially important in hot weather, it’s equally important in the cold. Remember that water in the waterers can and will freeze, so you may want to invest in a heated waterer – otherwise, you’re going ot need to break up the ice each morning.
Best Commercial Chicken Feeds
Once you start looking around, you’ll find that there are thousands of chicken feeds you can choose from. There’s no single best chicken feed for every flock. However, you may want to consider one of the following options. Each offers the right combination of nutrients for chickens at various stages of life and production.
However, some are organic (which may or may not be important to you) while others have unique special features that may be more attractive to you instead. This list is not, of course, exclusive – as long as you find a chicken feed in your budget that has all the nutrients your chickens need, you will be good to go.
- Manna Pro Chick Starter
- Prairie’s Choice Non-GMO Backyard Chicken Feed
- Healthy Harvest 1 Piece 17-Percent Layer Pellets For Poultry
- Kaytee Chicken Supplements Scratch Grain
- Kaytee Laying Feed
- Nutrena Country Feeds Layer Pellets
Affordable Chicken Treats
While the cornerstone of your chickens’ diets should be one of the commercial feeds mentioned above, there is also nothing wrong with giving your chickens some treats from time to time. After all, treats add a great deal of nutrients to your chickens’ diet. It’s also fun to hand-feed your birds and watch them play!
Some of the best options include those that are high in protein and vitamins, like worms, pumpkin, apples, broccoli, and warm oatmeal (especially during the winter months). I’ll give you some more ideas for chicken treats below.
In general, you can feed your chickens just about anything in moderation. Steer clear from anything that is bad for you, as a human (like alcohol, sweets, and heavily processed foods) along with toxic foods like rhubarb and avocado. There are a few other foods that should be avoided, too.
You can buy store-bought chicken treats, like freeze-dried mealworms and maggots, but these really aren’t necessary. Your chickens will love the homemade versions of treats just as much!
One word of caution though – when you feed your chickens treats, make sure you feed them off the ground. Do not put the treats on the ground in the coop, as this can lead to the spread of disease and parasitic infections. Instead, use a dedicated “treat” feeder or hang the treats from the ceiling of the coop.
In addition, don’t overfeed treats – your chickens will always eat these before they eat their regular feed. While that’s perfectly fine for some treats, other kinds of treats won’t have all the nutrients that your chickens need to thrive. They will have some nutritional deficits if they constantly ignore the feeder for the fresh treats you are offering.
Unless it’s bitterly cold in the winter, you should try not to feed your chickens treats any more often than once a day. Do this is in the evenings- it will get them ready for bed. Feed no more than a third of a cup of treats per chicken per day.
Safe Foods For Chickens:
- ✅ Almonds
- ✅ Apples
- ✅ Artichokes
- ✅ Peeled Bananas
- ✅ Asparagus
- ✅ Herbs, such as basil, nettles, chives, comfrey, chickweed, and cilantro (basil, in particular, boosts the immune system)
- ✅ Cooked Beans (though I read this can make the eggs taste funny.)
- ✅ Beets and beet greens
- ✅ Berries of all kinds
- ✅ Breads (feed bread and other starches in moderation, as they have little nutritional value)
- ✅ Broccoli
- ✅ Cauliflower
- ✅ Cabbage
- ✅ Brussel Sprouts
- ✅ Carrots’
- ✅ Kiwi
- ✅ Avocado flesh
- ✅ Quinoa
- ✅ Lemons (in moderation, they’re good for them but they probably won’t eat them)
- ✅ Cereal (not a sugary kind)
- ✅ Cheese (including cottage cheese, not too much though)
- ✅ Cooked meat, including chicken
- ✅ Corn
- ✅ Cucumbers
- ✅ Cooked Eggs
- ✅ Eggplant (just not the plant itself – only the fruit)
- ✅ Fish/Seafood
- ✅ Fruit
- ✅ Grains
- ✅ Seedless Grapes
- ✅ Cooked Grits
- ✅ Lettuce and other leafy greens
- ✅ Melon
- ✅ Oatmeal (raw or cooked)
- ✅ Cooked Pasta (in moderation – too many carbs)
- ✅ Peas
- ✅ Peppers
- ✅ Pomegranates
- ✅ Popped Popcorn (no butter or salt)
- ✅ Cooked Potatoes (no green skins!)
- ✅ Pumpkins
- ✅ Pumpkin seeds
- ✅ Fodder
- ✅ Winter and summer squash (cut them in half and let the chickens eat the seeds and flesh)
- ✅ Raisins
- ✅ Sprouted lentils and grains
- ✅ Cooked Rice
- ✅ Duckweed (exceptionally high in protein and easy to grow)
- ✅ Sunflower Seeds
- ✅ Black soldier fly larvae or Japanese beetles (you can easily make traps and bags to contain these and then feed them to your birds)
- ✅ Garden weeds (such as dandelion, lambs quarter, and purslane)
- ✅ Fermented feed
- ✅ Cantaloupe seeds
- ✅ Tomatoes
- ✅ Cranberries
- ✅ Cooked Turnips
- ✅ Watermelon
- ✅ Yogurt (plain is best, and a good source of probiotics)
- ✅ Milk (sour or curdled is fine)
- ✅ Sweet potatoes
- ✅ Cornbread
- ✅ Nuts (in moderation)
- ✅ Pet or livestock food, such as dog, cat, or goat feed (wet cat food, in particular, is a great option when hens are molting, as it provides necessary nutrients)
- ✅ Bone meal
- ✅ Garlic (beneficial for immune functioning)
- ✅ Grass clippings (do not use clippings when pesticides or fertilizers where applied)
- ✅ Cover crops (such as alfalfa, oats, sorghum, or buckwheat)
- ✅ Butchering scraps (ideally cooked)
- ✅ Catfood (in moderation, perhaps only during molting)
- ✅ Flowers (make sure they haven’t been treated with pesticides – good options include pansies, nasturtiums, marigolds, etc)
- ✅ Mealworms
- ✅ Red winter wheat
Do NOT feed your chickens:
- ❌ Raw potato peel (while these aren’t necessarily toxic raw or cooked, any green parts of potatoes can be dangerous to chickens, just as they are to humans)
- ❌Green tomatoes
- ❌ Dried or undercooked beans
- ❌ Avocado skin or pit
- ❌ Raw eggs (encourages them to eat their own eggs)
- ❌ Sugary stuff
- ❌ Butter (too fatty)
- ❌ Really salty stuff
- ❌ Rotten or moldy food
- ❌ Chocolate or candy
- ❌ Anything containing caffeine
- ❌ Leaves from tomato or eggplant leaves (these are part of the nightshade family, and while the fruits of these plants are fine, unripened fruits or the plant itself should be avoided)
- ❌ Seeds or pits from fruits like apples, apricots, peaches, and pears (these contain cyanide)
- ❌ Wild mushrooms
- ❌ Rhubarb
- ❌ Raw meat
- ❌ Onions
- ❌ Uncooked Rice
- ❌ Spinach (fine in moderation, but only as an occasional treat as the oxalic acid in it isn’t good for your girls)
- ❌ Maggots (many people buy these commercially, which is typically fine, but be careful as maggots carry the risk of botulism)
Saving Money on Chicken Feed
Consider growing your own cover crops or extra perennial plants within your chickens’ reach so that they can graze freely on low-maintenance foods.
To save money, you might also consider checking with local farmers’ markets and grocery stores to see if they have any produce or other chicken-friendly foods to throw away.
Chickens will also enjoy pecking through your compost pile if given the chance, as this gives them access to scraps and nutrient-dense bugs while also helping to aerate your pile.
You can string up larger pieces of food (like a head of cabbage) for the chickens to peck at for fun, or you can put them in a wire container that they can peck the food through.
Alternatively, you can also throw scraps into a large tray or bowl, or container of some sort. Whatever you do, it’s best to try to keep the food off of the ground to keep it out of manure.
You might also consider building a grazing box. If you have limited space and aren’t able to allow your chickens to free range, these can be a great way to feed chickens confined in runs.
Grazing boxes allow chickens to eat freely or rotationally even while they are protected from predators.
Feeding your chickens table scraps is a great way to save a little money on feed, and your chickens will go crazy for your leftovers!
In addition, providing your chickens with scraps and leftovers is a great way to add variety to their diets, especially during a cold winter where free-range nutrients are scarce.
In general, chickens won’t eat something that will harm them or that is toxic. Don’t worry too much about trying different foods. If a particular food is unpalatable, your birds will typically ignore it.
Your Printable PDF Checklist
In case you want these two lists in printed format, you can download this PDF and print it out on your printer.
updated by Rebekah White on 04/15/2020
A city girl learning to homestead on an acre of land in the country. Wife and homeschooling mother of four. Enjoying life, and everything that has to do with self sufficient living.