Friday, October 6, 2017

Hash Brown and Beef Hot Dish (gluten-free)

Tater Tot Hot Dish is a popular food in the Great Lakes region of the USA. Ground beef, veggies, gravy, and cheese, topped with crispy potatoes: what's not to like? Most hot dish recipes rely on processed ingredients such as canned cream of mushroom soup and tater tots, but I've opted to instead make this recipe with real, whole food ingredients. The result is a delicious meal that my whole family loves.

When I first made this recipe, I used storebought tater tots, but was dissatisfied with the ingredients therein (especially the unhealthy canola oil). Since my family ended up loving this dish, I developed a way to make it without using tater tots, by substituting hash brown potatoes instead. The resulting Hash Brown and Beef Hot Dish is now a family favorite recipe.

This recipe is one of the regional recipes featured in my All Around the USA Unit Study.

Hash Brown and Beef Hot Dish

Serves 8-10
·         Hash brown topping*:
o   1 stick butter, preferably nutrient-dense butter
o   Two 1-pound bags of southern-style hash browns (organic hash browns have only one ingredient: potatoes)
·         Filling:
o   2 Tb butter, preferably nutrient-dense butter
o   1 large white or yellow onion, chopped
o   8 ounces brown mushrooms, sliced
o   3 large carrots, chopped
o   1&1/2 pounds ground beef, preferably grassfed
o   1&1/2 tsp celtic sea salt
o   1/2 tsp pepper
o   1&1/2 cups frozen green beans
o   3 cloves garlic, minced
o   1/3 cup white rice flour
o   1&1/4 cups chicken bone broth, preferably homemade
o   1&1/2 cups whole milk
o   leaves from 3 sprigs of fresh thyme
o   1 tsp blackstrap molasses
o   1/8 tsp hot sauce
o   1/2 tsp gluten-free soy sauce
o   1 tsp apple cider vinegar
o   1/8 tsp dried allspice
o   1 cup frozen peas (optional)
o   8 ounces cheddar cheese, shredded

Make the Hash Brown Topping:
  1. Melt one stick of butter in a very large, heavy bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. 
  2. Add the frozen hash browns and sprinkle with 1 tsp salt.
  3. Let the hash browns cook for 7-10 minutes, until they are starting to crisp up. Then flip/stir the hash browns. A bamboo spatula works well for this. To make the hash browns crispy, make sure you do not stir them much. 
  4. Continue to stir them only occasionally, until they are well-crisped on all sides.
  5. Turn off heat and set aside.
Make the Beef and Vegetable Filling:
  1. Melt 2 Tb of butter in a large, heavy bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion, sprinkle with a pinch of salt, and saute for about 10 minutes. It is fine if the onion starts to get some brown, caramelized color, but adjust the heat as necessary if the skillet is getting too hot.
  2. In the meantime, prepare the carrots and mushrooms.
  3. Add the mushrooms and carrots to the onions. Crumble the ground beef into the skillet and sprinkle with 1&1/2 Tb of salt and 1/2 tsp pepper. (Use less salt if your chicken broth is salted. My homemade chicken broth is unsalted.) Cook for about 7 minutes, stirring every few minutes to ensure that the ground beef and veggies are cooking evenly.
  4. In the meantime, mince the garlic. 
  5. Combine the molasses, thyme leaves, soy sauce, hot sauce, apple cider vinegar, and allspice in a medium bowl. Stir to combine. Add the broth and milk, and stir it all together.
  6. Sprinkle the garlic and rice flour into the beef and vegetable mixture. Stir and cook for about 2 minutes, just until the garlic is fragrant.
  7. Stir the frozen green beans into the beef and vegetable mixture. Then pour in the seasoned broth and milk mixture. Stir well to make sure everything is well-combined.
  8. Bring the beef and vegetable mixture to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5-7 minutes, until the sauce has thickened up nicely. Taste the mixture and adjust the salt and pepper if necessary.
  9. In the meantime, shred the cheddar cheese and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Assemble the Hash Brown Hot Dish:
  1. Pour the beef and vegetable mixture into a 9X13 glass baking dish.
  2. Sprinkle the optional peas on top.
  3. Sprinkle the shredded cheese over the meat and vegetables.
  4. Spread the crispy hash browns over the top of it all.
  5. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes, until everything is bubbling and hot.
  6. Remove from the oven, serve, and enjoy! Leftovers freeze well for easy future meals.

*Feel free to substitute storebought Tater Tots for the Hash Brown Topping, if desired. If so, skip the steps for preparing the hash brown topping, and just top the filling with the tater tots before baking.

Links to Amazon are affiliate links. If you use these links, your price remains the same, but I earn a small commission. Thanks for supporting this site!

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Writing in Our Homeschool

This post is the 4th in my back-to-school series for 2017-18.

My Early Failures in Teaching Writing

Writing was one of the subjects that I pushed too hard on, back in the early years of homeschooling. My daughter had loved her writing workbooks during her preschool years. Nonetheless, after being required to do writing practice at least 3 times per week throughout homeschool kindergarten and first grade, she had grown to dislike writing. When I finally realized that I needed to stop pushing in our homeschool, and instead focus on creating a love of learning in my kids, I was dismayed to see that my daughter did not write, at all, for months on end.

I was committed to the ideas of Leadership Education (TJEd), and that meant I would no longer require her to practice writing. Leadership Education aims to produce children who love to learn and know how to work hard, so that they naturally move into their teen years ready and willing to put in many hours of daily study time. In order for this to happen, the children have to be given the freedom to fall in love with learning, and they have to know that they are in charge of their own educations. I knew that I wanted to give my daughter these ideals, and yet it took a big leap of faith for me to be able to watch her not even pick up a pencil for months. I watched and waited, somewhat anxiously.

Changing Our Environment

In the meantime, while I was giving my daughter her much-needed-detox from all academic requirements, I got to work on changing our home schooling environment using the TJEd 7 Keys of Great Education. Two of these keys, in particular, became my focus: "Inspire, Not Require" and "You, Not Them." As described in Leadership Education: The Phases of Learning, by Oliver and Rachel DeMille,

While I was trying to reform my homeschooling methods, these two keys became foundational for me in being able to re-create our home learning environment into a place where my children could fall in love with learning and pursue their own interests. Instead of trying to force or coerce my daughter to write, I focused my efforts on creating an environment where she would be inspired to want to write.

Over the last four years since I started implementing TJEd principles into our homeschool, I've seen that this educational philosophy really works!  Both of my children are enthusiastic about learning and truly love our schooling. And for me, being able to focus on my own studies has been transformational. It goes a long way towards filling my cup to the brim.

Inspiring My Children to Want to Write

I purposely inspire my kids to write in the following ways.
  • I make sure that my children see me writing in my own notebooks on a regular basis. Young children naturally desire to emulate their parents, so this makes a huge difference in the amount of writing that they choose to do themselves.
  • Instead of expecting my children to write just to develop that skill, I give them real, meaningful opportunities to write:
    • When we do Nature Study, my children have the option to write (and draw) in their Nature Notebooks.
    • My children have penpals in Nevada, Florida, and Canada. My children love receiving letters in the mail, so having penpals has been one of the biggest motivators for them in practicing their writing regularly.
    • Since their writing skills lag behind their composition skills, whenever they ask I will write or type poems, stories, or songs for my children. This allows my children to have a voice, to develop their own literary style, even when they are not practicing writing on paper. 
    • I seek out writing contests that my daughter, especially, enjoys participating in. I take the time to type the stories for her while she dictates them. I can then walk her through the editing process, allowing her to see how to fine-tune her writing.

Methods and Resources for Writing

Through using the following methods, I am able to create an environment where my children naturally develop the skills to write.
  • Reading aloud often -  Read-alouds are a crucial part of our writing curriculum. Because they've heard so many classics read out loud, my kids are able to naturally develop the skill of grammatically-correct writing. For instance, my daughter dictated to me a ~4500 word story for a contest, complete with preface, chapters, and epilogue. We've never talked about how a story should be formatted (nor how paragraphs or sentences should be formatted), but nonetheless she decided upon all of that on her own, and pointed out where she wanted parentheses inserted into the story.
  • Reading aloud while they trace letters - During our read-aloud time, my kids are encouraged to work on tracing their penpal letters (or other compositions). This helps keep their hands busy while I'm reading aloud, and gives them an opportunity to practice writing on a regular basis if they choose to do so.
  • Refraining from correcting their writing - My tendency to over-correct my daughter during the early years of homeschooling created in her a fear of failure and a tendency to back away from figuring things out on her own. It doesn't come naturally for me to not point out my children's mistakes, but I have purposely learned to bite my tongue. This gives my children a safe space to learn without feeling that their self-worth is somehow tied into whether or not they make writing mistakes.  
Within the context of inspiring my children to write, the following resources have been helpful in allowing my children to enjoy the process of developing the fine motor skills that are necessary for writing. My children are not required to use any of these; nonetheless, these are the writing resources they have chosen to use most often.
  • Maze and tracing workbooks - Both of my kids have enjoyed using maze and tracing workbooks from around 2-6 years old. We used Kumon workbooks, and both of my kids loved using these books. (Note: I only like the Kumon workbooks for preschool work; I don't like them at all once they get into grade-school type work as they are too repetitive and suck the fun right out of school.) 
  • Dot-to-dot books - Now that my kids are a little older, they seem to enjoy dot-to-dot pages more than mazes. There are many dot-to-dot printables on the internet, but so far the best resource I have found is The Greatest Dot-to-Dot Book in the World. Both of my kids love this book.
  • Tracing pages - For penpal letters and other correspondence that my children want to send, it works well for me to type while my children dictate. I then print the letters with a light-colored font to allow for easy tracing of the letters by my children. They have enjoyed using both a printing font as well as a cursive font. I use the following fonts for this activity: 
      • Print Clearly - This is a nice, basic printing font.
      • Learning Curve - This is a cursive font that works fairly well. Because of the way the letters are designed in this font, there is a small amount of correction needed after printing (such as inserting the leading swoop at the beginning of a word), but nonetheless this is the best font I have found for cursive. 
  • Madlibs - These fun, fill-in-the-blank worksheets have given us lots of entertainment. My daughter enjoys filling out the Madlibs and then entertaining us all by reading the silly story she has created.
  • Hangman - Both of my kids enjoy playing Hangman, where one of us comes up with a word or phrase, and the other person has to guess the right letters to solve the puzzle before the man gets hanged.
  • Writing game - My daughter likes to play a game where we pretend we cannot hear, so that we write to each other to have a conversation. To make this work, my daughter references a chart of words to help in spelling the words she wants to write.

Overcoming Her Dislike of Writing

So how is this all working out for my daughter, who disliked writing by age 6? She is now 10-years-old, and doesn't seem to have any strong feelings one way or the other about writing. Considering how much she used to dislike writing, I see this as a win! 

My daughter definitely loves creating stories and entering story contests. She is starting to set goals for herself to practice writing more because she has identified that as an area she would like to improve upon. So, instead of tracing all of her letters to penpals and relatives, she is choosing to handwrite some of them. She also writes little notes to herself or to me, as needed in her day-to-day life.

After seeing me write in my commonplace place book over the last several years, my daughter decided to start her own commonplace book. She uses this book as a place to copy down her favorite poems. She is also creating a handwritten book out of the ~4500-word story that she dictated to me earlier this year. Because I stopped myself from correcting her handwriting, she has had the freedom to develop her own beautiful handwriting style, which she based upon the font in one of  her favorite books.

I am so thankful that I learned there was a better way for my children to learn how to write, so that my 10-year-old daughter has been able to grow past her dislike of writing. Meanwhile, my 7-year-old son hasn't had any of the negative emotional baggage that his sister had, so he has been free to learn writing in a natural, unpressured way. Learning from my mistakes and finding a better path has been well worth it. 

What has been your experience with teaching writing to your children? What do you remember about your own writing education?

Links to Amazon are affiliate links. If you use these links, your price remains the same, but I earn a small commission. Thanks for supporting this site!

Sunday, September 24, 2017

USA Unit Study - $6 Through 9/30/17 Only

In case any of you are interested, my All Around the USA Unit Study is currently available for only $6. On October 1st, the price will increase to $8.

All Around the USA is a read-aloud-based unit study that is designed to make learning about the United States fun and engaging for children and parents/educators alike. Rather than focusing on memorization of states and capitals, this unit study seeks to give a small sense of the culture in each region of the USA.

This unit study incorporates the following for each region:
  • geography
  • history
  • Native American studies
  • science
  • stories and folk tales
  • chapter books, including book suggestions for the parents/educators themselves
  • media to accompany the read-alouds
  • pictures of landscapes and famous sites
  • food and recipe suggestions
For more information about this unit study (including sample pages), or if you are interested in buying the unit study, click here.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Minestrone Soup (grain-free : nutrient-dense)

Homemade soup is one of my favorite things about the cooler months of the year. Since the heat of summer is finally abating, I'm ready to embrace soup back into our dinner repertoire.  This minestrone soup recipe combines two types of beans with lots of veggies in a flavorful broth. This soup gets a flavor punch thanks to the addition of sun-dried tomatoes, a Parmesan cheese rind, and fresh herbs.

Minestrone Soup

Serves 6-8

  • 3/4 cup of dried kidney beans
  • 3/4 cup of dried white navy beans
  • filtered water
  • dash of baking soda
  • 2 Tb butter, preferably the nutrient-dense yellow type
  • 2 large onions, chopped
  • 3 cups chicken broth, preferably homemade
  • 2 cups filtered water (or substitute with more chicken broth if using storebought broth)
  • 4 tsp Celtic sea salt (use less salt if your tomatoes and/or chicken broth are salted)
  • Parmesan cheese rind
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
  • 4 carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 4 celery stalks, chopped
  • 3 stalks of chard, stems chopped and kept separate from the greens
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • one 18-ounce jar of diced tomatoes
  • 3 Tb sundried tomatoes (in olive oil), minced
  • 1 Tb fresh oregano, minced (or substitute 1 tsp dried)
  • 1&1/2 tsp fresh rosemary, minced (or substitute 1/2 tsp dried)
  • 2 Tb fresh basil, minced (or substitute 2 tsp dried)
  • 3 Tb tomato paste
  • 1 medium zucchini or yellow squash, chopped
  • finely shredded Parmesan cheese, to garnish

  1. Cover the beans with plenty of filtered water. The beans will soak up quite a bit of water, so be sure to add plenty. Add a dash of baking soda and allow the beans to soak at room temperature for at least 8 hours or overnight.  This important step reduces the phytic acid antinutrient in the beans.
  2. Drain and rinse the beans. Drain in a colander. 
  3. Chop the onions. Melt the butter in a 4-quart pot. Add the onions and a pinch of salt. Saute for 5 minutes. 
  4. Add the beans to the pot. Cover with 3 cups of chicken broth and 2 cups of filtered water. 
  5. Bring the pot to a boil. Skim off and discard the foam. Add 2 tsp salt, the Parmesan cheese rind, and bay leaves.  Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Cover the pot and cook until the beans are soft, about 1.5-2 hours. Stir occasionally.
  6. Meanwhile, chop the carrots and celery. Remove the leaves from the chard and mince the stalks. Reserve the chard leaves for Step 8. Mince the garlic. For the sundried tomatoes, I find it works best to put them in a bowl and then mince with a pair of kitchen shears. Mince the oregano, rosemary, and basil.
  7. Once the beans are cooked, add the carrots, celery, chard stalks, garlic, sundried tomatoes, oregano, rosemary, basil, and tomato paste to the pot. Stir in 2 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp pepper. Cover the pot and simmer for 25 minutes.
  8. Meanwhile, mince the chard leaves and chop the zucchini.
  9. Add the zucchini and chard leaves to the pot. Simmer uncovered for 10 minutes.
  10. Taste the broth and adjust the salt and pepper as desired. Remove the bay leaves.
  11. The Parmesan rind can be removed, or it can be chopped up and consumed with the soup by anyone who loves strong flavors.
  12. Finely shred Parmesan cheese to use as a garnish. A microplane zester works well for this.
  13. Ladle the soup into bowls, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese, and enjoy!
Links to Amazon are affiliate links. If you use these links, your price remains the same, but I earn a small commission. Thanks for supporting this site!

Thursday, September 7, 2017

When and How Should My Children Learn to Read? Learning From My Mistakes

This post is the 3rd in my back-to-school series for 2017-18.

One Early Reader

I originally wrote a blog post about teaching reading over 4 years ago, based on my experiences in teaching my daughter Alina to read. She was a precocious reader; I started requiring her to do reading lessons when she was preschool age, and by the time she was 6-years-old she was reading at a 7th-grade-level and reading Charles Dickens in her spare time.  I thought Alina's reading success was greatly aided by our reading lessons, and assumed that my son Ian would be reading early, too.

But yet. Ian's personality is totally different from his sister's. Whereas Alina was eager to please and malleable from a young age, Ian was... not. He never did anything that he did not want to do, period. I could never talk him into doing anything that he didn't want to do, and he would stick to his decision for eternity. Thank goodness he is naturally geared to make right choices and likes following rules!

I've often said that if my son had been the firstborn I would have given up homeschooling early on, because the techniques I originally used (such as rigid schedules and forced academics) would never have worked with him. Now I know that those techniques were flawed from the start, and I no longer force my children to do academics (and instead focus on fostering a love of learning combined with them taking ownership for their own educations). But where does that leave 7-year-old Ian on his own journey to reading proficiency? 

Is Early Reading Actually Better?

In the intervening years since Alina learned to read, I've become much better-educated about the reading abilities of children. I've learned that:

  • There is actually a very wide developmental age for learning to read. Some kids naturally learn to read at very young ages, but it is totally natural that some kids do not read until later, even until as late as 12 to 14 years old. 
  • When a child naturally has a developmental reading age that is older, it does not matter how much the child is urged and pushed to read while they are younger. The child will not really learn to read until they reach their natural developmental age for reading. 
  • The "late" readers generally end up being labeled as "slow" or "behind", when in fact they are not at all; they are just on their own developmental path and there is nothing wrong with them. And of course, that process of being told they are behind, of being pushed to do something they are actually not yet capable of doing, has a tremendously bad effect on their self-confidence and their belief in their own ability to learn. I have observed several children who were "late-readers" who went to public school: these children were made to feel like there was something seriously wrong with them. Once they reached their natural developmental reading age they were able to read easily; all efforts before that just led to frustration, anxiety, and low self-confidence. 
  • Each child is an individual who has his/her own developmental timetables and needs. It is totally normal and fine for a child to be a "late" reader. Often, a child who reads late will be more advanced in other areas. For instance, I've observed that many "late" readers are more naturally attuned to mathematical concepts than to early reading. Neither "late" readers nor "early" readers are better or worse; they are just different. 
  • There is no "right" way to teach reading. Some kids learn to read in the phonics approach (sounding out letters, then sounding out words) but others learn to read with the "whole word" method (where they basically just memorize what a word looks like rather than breaking it down into individual phonics sounds). Neither approach is better than the other. 
  • Without any reading lessons at all, many kids will learn to read on their own when they reach their developmental age for reading if they are in a reading-rich environment (such as an environment where the parents are reading aloud to the child often). There is a good article about this here.

Were Alina's Reading Lessons Actually a Success?

Back when Alina was learning to read, I assumed my role was to be her teacher, who made sure she did her reading lessons and kept progressing. I pushed her to read just as I pushed her to do math and writing. She did learn to read early, but now I know that her early reading probably did not have much to do with my methods for teaching reading. She was just naturally a precocious reader.

In the end, my methods of pushing Alina to do academics actually backfired. She grew to think that schoolwork was akin to punishment, and to dislike math and writing specifically. She developed what John Gatto calls " provisional self-esteem": she came to believe that her own self-worth was related to how well she did academically and this lead her to become afraid of making any mistakes. People learn much through mistakes, so a fear of making mistakes actually hinders growth over time. Alina's fear of making mistakes meant that she did not trust her own learning processes and intuition, and that she was afraid to try to figure things out on her own. Our relationship was suffering, too, because of our interactions surrounding school work.

It has taken a long time for Alina to recover from these negative lessons, and in some ways she is still recovering from them. Even though it has been over 4 years since I found Leadership Education and stopped pushing her academically, I still see the shadow of those wrong lessons hanging over her at times.

Providing the Right Environment for Learning to Read

Now, while Ian is learning to read, I know that my own role is different than I had assumed years ago when Alina was learning to read. By knowing that children can learn to read easily when they reach their own developmental age for reading, and by knowing that academic pushing can easily create a hate of learning in children, my own role in the process becomes clear: I need to make sure the environment is right for Ian to learn to read and then just let the process unfold.

I am creating an environment that will help Ian learn to read by:

  • Reading aloud often, and making sure to read plenty of books that he finds very engaging. This will instill in him the belief that books are worthwhile and that reading is enjoyable. 
  • Reading my own books. The more a child sees their parents reading, the more they will want to read, too. 
  • Trusting the process. Showing Ian that I have confidence that he can learn anything, and not allowing the process to become stressful, is an important aspect of providing the right environment for learning to read. I've been careful to never give him the idea that he is "behind" in reading, and to let his own process for reading develop naturally. 
  • Instilling in him a love for learning. Ian's love of learning is being nurtured through being supported in following his own interests and passions, as well as through exposure to great books, ideas, art, and music. This helps Ian be open and free with his learning, so he can naturally love it. 
  • Creating a home atmosphere where reading is a main form of entertainment. In our home, limiting screen time makes it possible for reading to be one of the top forms of entertainment every day of the week. In quiet moments, we naturally seek out books to enjoy singly or together. 
  • Buying him books that support his interests. Ian loves adult-level encyclopedias about cars (which we can find easily at our local used-bookstore). Even though Ian is not actually reading these books, he regularly spends time poring over the pictures in these books. In this way, he is building a habit of enjoying books. 
  • Assisting him when he wants help with reading. I am letting Ian lead out with determining when and how he wants to do reading lessons. This underscores the fact that he is in charge of his own education, and allows his reading lessons to become empowering rather than coerced.

Ian's Self-Directed Reading Lesson Schedule

When children are infused with the confidence that they can learn, and that their own interests/passions are important, they will take ownership of their own education. Every six months or so, I have a homeschool mentoring conversation with each of my children, wherein we fill out a homeschool compass for the months ahead. During one of these conversations, Ian said that he wanted to start having reading lessons, because he wants to be able to enjoy books like the rest of us do. Rather than me "making him" do reading lessons, I have given Ian the freedom to be in charge of the process.

Ian likes to plan ahead, so he set a goal for himself to do two reading lessons per week, on Wednesday and Friday. With his naturally-structured nature, he makes sure he does his two reading lessons each week, and he often does them a day early! He is still in the early stages of reading, but he is making progress over time and seems to be enjoying the process.

Want Some More Perspectives in Teaching Reading?

Check out these links for some more ideas to ponder regarding teaching kids to read:

What has been your experience with teaching reading? 

Links to Amazon are affiliate links. If you use these links, your price remains the same, but I earn a small commission. Thanks for supporting this site!

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

King Ranch Casserole (gluten-free : nutrient-dense)

King Ranch Casserole is a classic Texas dish made with layers of chicken, peppers, and cheese. As with many regional dishes, there is great debate over exactly what makes the quintessential version of this recipe: some call for corn tortillas, others call for flour tortillas, and others have no tortillas at all. I opted to leave the tortillas out and serve the casserole alongside warmed tortillas.  This recipe is featured in my All Around the USA unit study.

King Ranch Casserole

Serves 9-11
  • For the cooked chicken:
    • 6 skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs
    • 1 carrot, peeled and chopped roughly
    • 1 celery stalk, chopped roughly
    • 1 white onion, in large chunks
    • Celtic sea salt
    • filtered water
  • Chicken mixture:
  • Vegetable mixture:
    • 6 Tb butter
    • 2 large yellow or white onions, chopped
    • 3/4 tsp Celtic sea salt
    • 1 large yellow bell pepper, chopped
    • 1 large red bell pepper, chopped
    • 1 small green bell pepper, chopped
    • 4 medium cloves of garlic, minced
    • 3/4 tsp chili powder
    • 6 Tb white rice flour
  • Creamy gravy:
    • 1&1/2 cups chicken broth, preferably homemade
    • 3/4 cup heavy cream
    • 3/4 tsp Celtic sea salt (or less if your broth is salted)
    • 1/4 tsp pepper
  • Cheese:
    • 8 ounces pepper jack cheese, shredded
    • 10 ounces cheddar cheese, shredded
  • Warmed tortillas, for serving
  • Sour cream, for serving
Cook the chicken: 
  1. Place the carrot, celery, and onion in a 4-qt pot. Add the chicken thighs, cover with filtered water, and add a generous pinch of salt. 
  2. Bring the pot of chicken to a low simmer. Cover the pot and allow the chicken to gently simmer for 40 minutes.
  3. Use tongs to remove the chicken from the pot and allow to cool until it can be handled easily. (The super-delicious broth leftover from cooking the chicken can be used for some other meal later on. It makes fantastic nutrient-dense white rice.)
  4. Once the chicken is cool enough, remove and discard the chicken skin. (Or feed it to the dog!) Remove the chicken meat from the bones, being careful to avoid any cartilage or other chewy bits. The bones can be saved for making chicken bone broth
  5. Chop the chicken into small pieces.
  6. The chicken can be prepared earlier in the day or even a day in advance of the meal. 
To make the casserole:
  1. Combine all of the ingredients for the chicken mixture in a bowl and stir to combine. Set aside.
  2. In a very large, heavy-bottomed skillet, melt the butter over medium high heat. Add the onion and 3/4 tsp salt. Sauté for 10 minutes.
  3. Add the chopped bell peppers to the skillet. Sauté for 10 minutes.
  4. In the meantime, whisk together the ingredients for the creamy gravy in a medium bowl. 
  5. Shred the cheese using a box grater.
  6. Add the garlic to the skillet and sauté for about a minute, just until the garlic is fragrant.
  7. Sprinkle the rice flour and chili powder over the vegetables and stir to combine.
  8. Pour the gravy mixture over the vegetables in the skillet. Stir it all together. Simmer for a few minutes until the liquid thickens up. Turn off heat.
  9. In a 9X13 glass baking dish, spread half of the chicken mixture evenly over the bottom of the dish. Top the chicken with half of the vegetable mixture, then sprinkle half of the shredded cheese on top of the vegetable mixture. Make one more chicken layer, one more vegetable layer, and top it all with the remaining cheese.
  10. Bake the casserole in a 350 degree oven for about 25 minutes, until everything is hot and bubbling. If desired, the broiler can be turned on for the last 3-5 minutes to brown the cheese, but watch it carefully as it can burn easily with the broiler on!
  11. Remove from oven and allow to cool for a few minutes.
  12. Serve alongside tortillas, and top with sour cream if desired.

Links to Amazon are affiliate links. If you use these links, your price remains the same, but I earn a small commission. Thanks for supporting this site!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Our Semester-Long Study of the United States

This post is the 2nd in my back-to-school series for 2017-18.

Although we usually follow a 4-year-cycle for history and science in our homeschool, last year we decided to do something different. Spurred on by my children's interests, we spent the first half of 2017 exploring the United States through books, pictures, foods, and videos. Rather than focusing on memorization of state names and capitals, I sought to give us all a small sense of the culture in each region of the USA. To make our United States unit study more holistic, I decided to incorporate the following for each region:
  • geography
  • history
  • Native American studies
  • science
  • stories and folk tales
  • chapter books, including books for my own education
  • media to accompany the read-alouds
  • pictures of landscapes and famous sites
  • foods and recipes

Read-Alouds, Not Worksheets

I wanted our unit study to be an enjoyable, shared experience between me and my children. To that end, I purposely avoided basing our unit study upon worksheets, which are often used as busy work, and which my children would come to dread. Instead, I built our unit study around read-alouds.

With read-alouds, I was able to easily introduce my children to new ideas, cultures, and places. Through read-alouds, we were immersed in loving households, in the triumph of overcoming struggles and challenges, and in the wondrous fantasy of folk and fairy tales. Read-alouds also sparked some of our most important discussions, leading to the foundation of good character, integrity, responsibility, and kindness.

Whole USA Books

There were a few books which I read to my children throughout our USA unit study:

Regional USA Books

As we progressed around the USA, I checked out many, many books from the library. We read lots of picture books as well as a few chapter books. I thought it would be fun to learn about some of the animals, history, and landmarks in each region, so we read books about national parks, state mammals, and historical figures in each region. (If you want to know more about what we read, I've put together a comprehensive list of books for our United States unit study here.)

Nurturing Our Own Interests

I purposely incorporated our individual interests into the unit study. For instance, since my daughter is very interested in Native American culture and horses, we read Native American folktales and books about horses for each region of the USA. My son is quite interested in machines and structures, so we read books about bridges and inventors as we progressed around the USA.

Part of what made this unit study so enjoyable for my family was that I included topics of my own interest. I love cooking and developing recipes, so making recipes for each region was a great way for me to fuel my own passion while doing this unit study with my kids. We all enjoyed having meals with foods from each region of the USA.

How We Carried It Out

We spent about 2 weeks studying each region of the USA. I wanted our USA unit study to be unstressed and fun, so my kids and I would thoroughly enjoy it. To that end, I made sure to never make our unit study into a "requirement". Rather, we just enjoyed reading books together, looking at pictures of each region, and watching short videos about the animals in each region.

Introducing Each Region
I began the study of each region by briefly taking time to introduce the region. We referred to our large wall map of the USA to see where the region is located geographically within the USA, and I read a chapter from Hillyer's A Child's Geography of the World. Whenever we were interested in a specific state, we'd look it up in The United States of America: A State-by-State Guide to learn more about it.

I printed out pictures of the landscapes and sites in each region and hung them on the wall. It was quite enjoyable to see the different regions in this way, adorning our walls and shifting as we progressed across the United States.

Digging Into Books and Associated Videos
A few days each week, we read picture books for the region in the morning, generally before or during breakfast. It worked well to read one fiction book (such as a Native American folktale or story book) as well as one non-fiction book (such as a science or history book) at a time. Then we followed up the reading with any associated short videos to accompany the books.

In the evenings, we read more picture books and then the chapter book for each region.

Exploring the Foods

Once or twice a week, I made a meal incorporating regional foods. We enjoyed these meals in an unpressured way, allowing everyone the freedom to fall in love with or reject the new foods. The main objective was just to have an enjoyable regional meal together, to experience a small taste of the regional cuisine. 

Enjoying My Own Regional Books
In addition to reading books aloud to my kids, I made time to read some regional books on my own. These books allowed me to fuel my own interests throughout the unit study. When children see their parents feeling passionate and excited about their own interests, the children are inspired to do the same.

Want to Have Your Own USA Unit Study?

My kids and I had so much fun exploring the USA in this way. I hope this post helps you feel inspired to have your own read-aloud unit study of the USA.

To make it easy for anyone else who wants to have their own United States Unit study, I have created a comprehensive USA unit study. It includes over 250 book recommendations as well as associated videos, landscape pictures, and recipes for each region of the USA. 

Have you had any success with unit studies in your homeschool? If so, what were your favorite features?

Links to Amazon are affiliate links. If you use these links, your price remains the same, but I earn a small commission. Thanks for supporting this site!

Monday, August 14, 2017

Chocolate Chip Zucchini Muffins (gluten-free : nutrient-dense)

As summer marches on, there is an abundance of local zucchini available. Zucchini's mild neutral flavor makes it work equally well in savory dishes such as ratatouille and spaghetti, as well as in sweet dishes such as muffins and cookies.

I've previously blogged a recipe for grain-free zucchini spice muffins, but this summer I wanted something different. This mildly-sweet chocolate chip zucchini muffin recipe was a hit with all of my family. It makes a tasty, healthy breakfast or snack.

Chocolate  Chip Zucchini Muffins

Makes 12 muffins

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Line a muffin tin with paper cups. I like to use If You Care Unbleached Baking Cups, as the muffins do not stick to them!
  3. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Turn off heat and allow to cool a bit.
  4. In the meantime, combine the rice flour, coconut flour, tapioca starch, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and sucanat in a medium bowl. Whisk it all together to combine, making sure to break up any lumps.
  5. Combine the eggs and sour cream in a large bowl. Beat it all together with a fork or whisk.
  6. Shred the zucchini using a box grater, discarding the ends. The zucchini does NOT need to be peeled before it is shredded.
  7. Mix the zucchini and melted butter into the egg/sour cream mixture with a hand mixer or whisk.
  8. Dump the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients and mix just until combined.
  9. Mix in the chocolate chips.
  10. Scoop the muffin batter into the paper muffin cups. I like the convenience of using a 3-Tb scoop for this, but you could just use a large spoon.
  11. Bake the muffins at 350 degrees F for 25-30 minutes, until the muffins are lightly browned. Another way to tell the muffins are done is to insert a toothpick into the center of a muffin; if the toothpick comes out clean (NOT wet), the muffins are done.
  12. Remove from the oven, cool, and enjoy! 

*Want to know more about why I use white rice flour instead of brown? Check out this article.

Links to Amazon are affiliate links. If you use these links, your price remains the same, but I earn a small commission. Thanks for supporting this site!

Friday, August 11, 2017

Our Homeschool Curriculum for 2017-18 (with a 10-year-old and a 7-year-old)

This post is the first in my Back-To-School Series for 2017-18. Over the next few weeks, I'll be delving deep into the details of how we study specific subjects in our homeschool (such as reading, writing, and geography), so check back for more homeschooling inspiration.

Although we homeschool year-round, each August we officially start our new school year. It is a fun and exciting time when we dive into our new school supplies and books. This post will detail our curriculum and resources for the 2017-18 school year.

Character Comes First

One of the foundational aspects of our homeschool philosophy is the focus on building good character. I believe that teaching my children to be honest, responsible, kind people is more important than the acquisition of academic knowledge, so I focus quite a bit of my efforts on character development.  Household responsibilities, read-alouds, and relationship development are just some of the ways I focus on character development.  My post about Core Phase delves deep into this subject and gives lots of examples of how I work to develop good character in my children, so check out that post if you want more information about how I purposely focus on character in our homeschool.

Individual Interests

An important part of encouraging my children to love learning is allowing them to pursue their own interests. One of the biggest advantages of homeschooling is that my children have as much time as desired to follow their passions. I'm supporting my children's current interests as follows.

10-year-old daughter Alina

Alina is now several years into having her own chicken egg business. As she is getting older, she is getting to take part in more aspects of the business, such as planning the long-term goals for her flock, making decisions about managing the health of the flock, and learning about profit margins (or, in this case, learning about how far we are from actually turning a profit). Having her own business has taught her much about raising and caring for animals, handling and saving money, the value of hard work, and long-term commitments.

Besides chickens, Alina's other primary interest for the last few years has been horses. That interest seems to be waning now, so I am waiting to see what will spark her interest next.

7-year-old son Ian

Ian is very interested in cars and machines. I am supporting his interest through:

  • Teaching him how to use the lawn mower (he is SO excited to mow the lawn),
  • Letting him (and helping him) disassemble things that break (old electronics, broken lawn mowers, etc.),
  • Getting him involved in household maintenance (such as showing him how the inside of the toilet works, showing him how plumbing works, letting him help wherever possible such as screwing things in, using the manual staple gun, etc.),
  • Letting him participate in car maintenance (which I haven't done since I was in college over 15 years ago, but I realized this would be a good way to let him get involved so I'm going to start doing my own oil changes and routine maintenance once again),
  • Finding videos that show machines working (such as special tractors for harvesting pumpkins, how cotton is turned into cloth, etc.),
  • Letting him get involved in using the kitchen appliances (mixer, food processor, blender, immersion blender) whenever I need to use them for a recipe,
  • Taking the time to stop and let him observe construction sites, and
  • Checking out books about machines and cars from the library.

One curriculum resource that supports Ian's interest in machines is Snap Circuits Jr. Electronics Discovery Kit. Both of my kids love doing the experiments in this kit, and Ian especially loves learning more about how electricity works.

Academic Subjects

I do not push my children academically, but nonetheless I do give them exposure to plenty of academic subjects and pursuits. My kids are not required to do school; nonetheless, they love engaging with our different curriculum options. You can see an overview of our daily homeschool routine here.


I help set the stage for reading proficiency by reading aloud often. We read chapter books and picture books with beautiful language, engaging storylines, and memorable characters. Through reading aloud, I am able to show my children what a wonderful world is hiding between the pages of books. My children participate in a Read-Aloud Classic Book Club, wherein the children discuss books with their friends once a month. I also make a point of reading on my own frequently; children naturally emulate their parents, so it is important for them to see me engaging in reading and discussing books as part of my own lifelong education.

My 10-year-old daughter is an advanced reader who reads voraciously, so I don't do anything in particular to help her with reading. She does periodically ask to do a "reading lesson" wherein she reads aloud from a McGuffey Reader.

My 7-year-old son is in the early stages of learning to read. Ian likes to plan ahead, so a few months ago he set a goal for himself to do two reading lessons per week, on Wednesday and Friday. With his naturally-structured nature, he makes sure he does his two reading lessons each week, and he usually does them a day early! Currently, his favorite resources for reading lessons are:


We don't use a formal writing curriculum. Instead, I encourage my children to write in the following ways:

  • I make sure that my children see me writing in my own notebooks on a regular basis. This makes a huge difference in the amount of writing that they choose to do themselves.
  • Since their writing skills lag behind their composition skills, whenever they ask I will write or type poems, stories, or songs for my children.
  • When we do Nature Study, my children have the option to write in their Nature Notebooks.
  • My children have Pen Pals in Nevada and Canada. My children love receiving letters in the mail, so this has been the biggest motivator for them in practicing their writing frequently. 
  • After seeing me write in my commonplace place book over the last several years, my daughter decided to start her own commonplace book. She uses this book as a place to copy down her favorite poems.


I am not using a traditional math curriculum for my children. Rather, they are learning math in the context of everyday life, through games, and through math read-alouds. For more details of how I teach math without a formal curriculum, check out this blog post.

Currently, our favorite resources for math study are:

One new math game for this school year will be Cribbage, which uses cards and a scoring board to see who can first reach 121.

Chronological History, Science, and Math

Last year we took a break from our usual history studies to focus on world and United States geography and culture. This year, we are diving back into our 4-year cycle of history, and will be studying Ancient History.  This school year will be my daughter's second time studying Ancient History, and will be the first time for my son. While planning ahead for this year, I came up with the idea of incorporating math and science into our chronological studies, so I will be using the following books concurrently, reading selections from each in chronological order.

  • Story of the World Volume 1: Ancient Times by Susan Wise Bauer - This book tells of ancient history in a story format, interweaving myths and legends in with the history. The audio version of this book offers a great option for turning driving time into learning time. Because we have used this book once before (4 years ago), I know that I prefer to follow a different order for the chapters in the book. Instead of following chronological order as in the book, I prefer to focus on each ancient culture individually. 
  • A Child's History of the World by Virgil Hillyer - I will read this book alongside SOTW, giving different perspectives and details of many of the same events in SOTW. Hillyer's writing style is particularly engaging for my children, as they absolutely loved it when I read them A Child's Geography of the World last year. 
  • The Story of the First Americans: Ancient Times by Suzanne Strauss Art - This book highlights what was going on on the Americas in ancient history, and will be a good addition to round out our history studies. I like that the end of each chapter includes a few ideas for projects that correspond to the text.
  • The Story of Science: Aristotle Leads the Way by Joy Hakim - I was uber-excited when I found this late-elementary/middle-grades series that tells the story of science in chronological order. This book will allow us to incorporate science alongside with our history studies. This book includes many full-color photographs and looks like it will be an engaging read.
  • Mathematicians Are People, Too by Luetta and Wilbert Reimer - This books tells the stories of mathematicians and their lives. While studying Ancient History, we will get to learn about the mathematicians Thales, Pythagoras, Archimedes, and Hypatia.

A few resources that I find useful to complement our history studies are:
  • All Through The Ages: History Through Literature Guide - This excellent book is a great resource for finding picture and chapter books to supplement Story of the World and A Child's History of the World. Whenever either of my children seems particularly engaged in a topic from one of those books, I use All Through the Ages to find more books on the subject at our local library.
  • Rand McNally World Wall Map - This beautiful map adorns one of our living room walls and allows us to easily see the regions we are studying.
  • Replogle Globe - We frequently use our beautiful globe to look at the locations of the places we read about in our history lessons, so history lessons become geography lessons as well.

Hands-On Science

In addition to the chronological science book mentioned above, this year our hands-on science studies will focus on Animal Science, Human Biology, and Nature Study. We'll be using the following science resources:

Beauty and Creativity

I incorporate beauty and creativity into our home school in the following ways:

Circle Time

About twice per month, my children and I have Circle Time, where we sing, dance, and read poetry together. Our poetry book is Favorite Poems Old and New: Selected for Boys and Girls (which is a great compilation of poems about a wide variety of topics including childhood, the seasons, and family). You can read more about our Circle Time here.

Arts and Crafts

I make sure we have plenty of materials on-hand for arts and crafts. In addition to crafts they come up with, I make time to do painting, simple sewing projects, and holiday decorations with my children. We're using the following resources for arts and crafts:
  • Draw Tip Tuesday - This youtube channel is a great source of inspiration for drawing and painting.
  • Crayola Air Dry Clay - My kids love making creations with this inexpensive clay. It can be painted once dry.
  • Kinetic Sand - Kinetic Sand is kinda like sand, except it sticks to itself, never dries out, and is not very messy. My kids have been playing with our Kinetic Sand for hours each week lately, creating bridges, creatures, and freeform shapes.  
  • Pelikan Watercolors - These are not washable, but they are really vibrant compared to the Crayola watercolors we've used in the past.
  • Low-temperature hot glue gun - My children use the low-temp hot glue gun for making crafts.

Music Appreciation

My children and I are learning about the lives and music of great classical composers. We enjoy listening to the fourteen Music Masters CD's, which tell the story of each composer as well as demonstrate some of their music. The Story of Classical Music is also enjoyed by all. These CDs are a great way for us to make use of driving time, and we are all gaining a greater appreciation for classical music.

My children and I also attend live concerts. These range from classical music concerts to folk music concerts to Christmas concerts. And once a year, in December, we have a small family music recital which the children are welcome to participate in. Through these concerts and performances my children are able to gain first-hand experience with the beauty of music.

Free Play

Play time is hugely important in brain development. Though we do school work throughout the week, I make sure that there is plenty of time for my children to just play every day. Through their play time, they are able to engage their curiosity, develop their creativity, and learn much about how to interact with each other and their environment.

What changes have you made to your homeschool for the coming year?

Links to Amazon are affiliate links. If you use these links, your price remains the same, but I earn a small commission. Thanks for supporting this site!