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:
There is more information about Ian's reading lessons here.


We don't use a formal writing curriculum. Instead, I encourage my children to write in the following ways. There is more information about writing in our homeschool here.

  • 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!