New York Times bestselling author, slow cooking expert and mommy blogger next door
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Totally Together

I’m a Closet Homeschooler (teaching kids at home even if they go to school)

July 9, 2015 by · 31 Comments 



games and activities to do with your kids over the summer to keep their little brains active and juicy!

What is “Closet HomeSchooling”?

When I was pregnant with my first (10 years ago), I informed my husband, Adam, that I “reserved the right to homeschool.” He was (skeptically) agreeable, so I took it upon myself to learn as much as I could about homeschooling in case the day ever came when I felt that I could do a better job teaching the kids than our local school.

We now have three little girls: 9 1/2, 6 1/2 and age sixteen months. We’ve moved a few times since I “staked my claim” to homeschool ten years ago, and now live in a very good school district.

so my kids go to public school (the baby is home, of course).

The children are happy, and are thriving. They continue to excel in class and are all naturally inquisitive and have a thirst for learning. I’m happy with a lot that the school provides, but continue to supplement at home as much as I can. I try to be “around” the school a lot, which allows me  opportunity to see firsthand behavior issues, and the time wasted moving from activities or lessons. I do not think this is necessarily a bad thing–it’s just something I’m very aware of. Adam says I’m keeping score. Maybe I am!

I’m greatly looking forward to having the kids home with me when school lets out (8 days!). No matter how involved I am in the school, during the school year, Adam and I are not in charge. The teacher is. I wish I could say this doesn’t bother me, but I’d be lying. The school calendar dominates our day to day life, and I’m looking forward to getting a more natural flow to our days.

It’s Pretty Much “After-School” Homeschooling

I have gotten a few emails in the past week or so asking what activities I do with my children during the summer. My oldest is going to attend a 2-week enrichment program (3 hours a day), [updated, 6/1: just got an email that the program has been canceled due to lack of funds/enrollment. NOT HAPPY. ] and my 6 year old will attend a gymnastics class twice a week. I’ll probably throw in a week of swim lessons, and we’re hoping to get a sponsor for a late-summer book tour to Albuquerque, and will visit the Grand Canyon.

Otherwise, our days will be pretty loose— park trips, library visits, and playdates. The television will be turned off for the day by 10am, and the kids will have free range of the art supplies, books, games, and the back yard.

will they fight?


will I lose my temper (more than I should)?

Y.O.U. B.E.T.C.H.A.

will they complain that they’re bored?

W.I.T.H.O.U.T. A. D.O.U.B.T.

I can not wait.

Beat Summer Brain-Drain with these "totally not boring" activities and workbooks.

Beat Summer Brain-Drain with these “totally not boring” activities and workbooks.

Resources shown above, and what I use in our (closet) homeschooling curriculum:

Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons — I taught my big kids to read with this book. It’s actually not shown in the above picture because I lent it to our neighbor to use with her 3-year-old. I do not use the writing exercises at all. At the end of the 100 lessons, your child will be reading on a 2nd grade level. I started just for fun at around age 3 1/2 with my girls. I followed the lessons in order, but didn’t have a set time frame. If the kids wanted to sit with me and practice, we did. We would go months without even opening the book, but sometimes we’d do 4 lessons in a day. They each finished the book in it’s entirety before entering first grade.

BOB Books. — I’ve put these books away until the baby is ready. Warning: they tear easily! These are fun, whimsical books that teach reading both through phonics and memorization. I actually think it’s mostly from memorization, but many disagree. Empowers young children that they can read an “entire book.”

Brain Quest decks — we have at least a dozen of these decks. I love giving them as gifts, and love receiving them! I toss a deck into the diaper bag to pull out at restaurants when we anticipate a long wait, I use them in waiting rooms, in the car when waiting for music lessons to dismiss, etc. I keep a basket on the shelf on the end table and the kids pull them out when they’ve got some time to kill.

Brain Quest Workbooks — we were given a few of these, and the kids use them, but there’s definitely a workbook feel. I keep them “out” and sometimes they’ll do a page or two on their own, but mostly they are used for playing school with playdates.

Summer Bridge — I bought a set of these a few summers ago mostly to pacify myself that the kids were on the right track and their brains weren’t turning to mush. I’ve since relaxed a bit on worksheets, but if you are a person who likes order and want the confidence of knowing the kids are *actually* learning or your kids like completing worksheets this is a good summer project.

Never Bored books — Mazes, word searches, brain teasers, coloring pages, etc. My kids like these better than traditional workbooks. I would recommend buying up an age group for a bit of a challenge. Some of the activities require scissors and glue.

The Story of the World series, by Susan Wise Bauer — This series of books is written by the same author of The Well-Trained Mind. We only have the first book and are only a third of the way through. It starts with Ancient Times: Earliest Nomads to the Last Roman Emperor. The book is written in story form, and is written from a secular perspective.

The Daring Book for Girls and The Dangerous Book for Boys — We have both of these books. Practical guide to pretty much anything: letter writing, fire building, camping, tying a variety of knots, how to be a good friend, proper restaurant manners. These aren’t books to be read cover to cover, but used as a reference guide. I like to give these as gifts.

The Little House on the Prairie books — I have girls, so I’m not sure how well this series would fare in a house full of boys. I read this series outloud to my big girls, starting when my oldest was 6 (I skipped over some of the Laura and Alfonso stuff). Reading this series outloud was hands-down the best history lesson my kids have ever had (thus far. they are still quite young!). We refer to “Laura and Mary” quite often in our house, and apply the knowledge of this time period to other history lessons to provide perspective. I plan on rereading the series in a year or so to refresh all of our memories.

I Can Draw books and Pocket Doodle books — My first grader loves to draw and doodle, and will happily work for hours creating and recreating animal or people pictures. These are the easiest-to-understand for little kids drawing guides I’ve found.

Soduku Unifex game — If you’ve never played soduku, or are intimidated by it, this is a FANTASTIC way to learn the game– for little kids and for grown ups! This is a one-player game, and once the fundamentals are learned, soduku is a solitary game enjoyed throughout your whole life. Math, reasoning, strategy, and spacial awareness are all key aspects of this game. The box says ages 7 and up. My kids enjoyed playing (with help) at age five.

We play a lot of board games! These are our family-favorite board games. 

Planning a Road Trip with Little Kids

August 6, 2014 by · 14 Comments 

How to plan and execute a family road trip with little kids. 2 weeks, 8 states. You can do it!


Plan Ahead

We took a 2-week family road trip this summer as our main vacation. We ended up hitting 8 states, and we left from the San Francisco Bay Area. The states that we “tiptoed in” aren’t included in the above map — we ended up only spending an hour in Nebraska and about 15 minutes in Colorado. But I still think it totally counts!

We have a small pop-up tent trailer that we pull with our Toyota Sienna mini van. If you are in the market for a pop-up, we chose the Jayco Sport 10 model, and it fit all 5 of us beautifully (2 adults, kids: 12, 9, 4). We opted to get a model that doesn’t have a shower or toilet because we stayed at (almost all) KOA campgrounds.

We opted for the KOA grounds because they had swimming pools, good bathroom facilities, and a playground for the kids. I also appreciate that the Lights Out time at the campsites is 9pm; I like knowing that i’m not going to hear booming music while I’m trying to get the kids to sleep. The KOAs that we went to were all family-friendly and I felt safe, which was important to me when so far away.

Months (about 6 months) before we left, we outlined our route and made camp reservations. We knew we wanted to see Dinosaur National Park, Yellowstone, and Mt Rushmore. The kids also really wanted to see “the world’s largest baked potato” in Idaho. Those were the destinations we kept in mind while planning our itinerary. Adam also wanted to limit the driving to about 400 miles a day or less.

When planning a family road trip, get an accordion file and fill each slot with detailed maps and emergency room instructions. Safety first!

I bought an inexpensive accordion file folder and divvied it up per day. I included in each slot our camping reservation, a map of the area, and directions to the nearest hospital. I did this for every city we spent the night in. I figured if we had the local emergency room mapped out we’d never need to use it! And I was right! PHEW!!

Do not count on your vehicle’s GPS system or your phone’s turn by turn guidance. Be sure to have roadmaps of all the areas you are going to go to, and before you leave print out turn by turn instructions from one spot to another. Cell and GPS reception is quite spotty in the National Parks, Forests, and in the mountains. We’d have entire days of no cell service.

You can get Tourist Information and roadmaps for every state at this website. And here is my Pinterest Board I used to keep track of my bookmarks.


We drove a lot. Although we tried to limit the driving to 3 to 4 hours a day, there were days that we hit traffic or road construction crews or bad weather which slowed us down. I have fantastic kids, but I’m super glad that there wasn’t a dashboard-mounted camera to catch all the times that I yelled at them to stop complaining.

Kids are kids. Kids complain. Kids get tired and cranky. Know this and accept this before you go.

We had a rule that at the campsites there was “nothing digital.” But in the car? Whatever. Keep the kids happy — give them snacks, little toys from the dollar store, play games, and watch DVDs.

I actually bought boxed sets of new-to-my-kids DVDs to watch on the road like Punky Brewster, The Brady Bunch, Webster, Silver Spoons, and The Cosby Show. These are all family friendly and Adam and I enjoyed hearing them through the car sound system. I also liked how each episode has a bit of a moral dilemma and message.

I’m a total sap.

I had a few rolls of quarters with us that I used to pay the kids every so often for their good behavior. My idea was to dole them out for every 15 minutes or so of quiet but I wasn’t quite all that organized. Instead, I just handed them a handful here and there depending on my mood. They used these quarters to buy candy, stuff from gumball machines, and pressed pennies.

We also needed the quarters to do laundry at the campsites and to pay for parking meters. I was glad to have them!


I’m the crockpot lady, so I planned most of our meals around slow cooker food. I wrote about how I always camp with my slow cooker, here.  This trip was no different, except that we were really on the road more than at a campsite, so I found the stovetop setting and the oven setting of the Ninja to be a much more efficient way to cook.

Bring along a Ninja Slow Cooker on your camping road trip and a long extension cord.


I brought along a 25-foot extension cord so we preferred to keep the Ninja out on the picnic table in the evenings while I cooked instead of stinking up the pop-up. It worked very well for us, and (in case you were wondering) you can make AWESOME bacon in it on the oven setting at 400 degrees — then you can use the drippings to make the world’s best hashbrowns!

A pancake griddle is a wonderful tool to bring on a camping roadtrip vacation.

I also packed the pancake griddle for use at the sites. The griddle came in handy during the rain storms that we kept hitting which made cooking outside impossible. We used it for pancakes, french toast, quesadillas, and grilled cheese sandwiches. On nice days I’d use it outside, too, for lunch time cooking.

Although the pop-up has a propane grill and every campsite has a charcoal or campfire ring, we really did find that we used the Ninja or the griddle for almost all of the meals. I found that I could control the heat better and when the kids were starving it was just easier to cook on something I was used to rather than worry about the wind blowing out the propane flame.

How to plan your meals for a long family roadtrip vacation.

Because we are gluten free, I worried that we wouldn’t really be able to find some of our favorite packaged food on the road. I bought a case of Gluten Free Rice Krispies before we left, and we stuck to that and yogurt and fresh fruit for breakfasts. Lunch was usually crackers with peanut butter or salami and cheese. We often ate in the car for lunch or found a local park that we could pull into to let the kids run around and get their wiggles out.

That was actually kind of fun — we would just find a suburb in a small town and drive around to find the local park. We saw some really cool playgrounds!

We ended up eating out for either lunch or dinner almost every day. In a perfect world I suppose you’d always eat at the campsite or prepare your own food, but I found it just not to be realistic. Eating at a restaurant for 1 meal a day was much less expensive than it would be to eat out for all meals, and it honestly was just kind of nice to have somebody bring me my food!


Camping with your kids provides lifetime memories and helps kids learn self-sufficiency.


Using the pop-up has spoiled me, and I’d rather not tent camp anymore if I can help it.  I like that the setup and tear down only takes about 20 minutes, and I like how clean this type of camping is. Since we stayed at KOAs, we all showered daily and the bathrooms were very nicely maintained. I never felt like we were roughing it — the mattresses were comfortable and I liked not having to roll up the bedding each and every day.

The kids all had their “jobs” — and they were very good at set up and tear down after 15 days on the road.

To make our home away from home a bit more comfortable, I did get a Nighttime Bathroom for me and the girls — a Luggable Loo, which came in very handy. To keep it from being gross, I simply lined it each night with a kitchen-garbage-bag and placed an open Size 5 diaper in the bottom. In the morning, I just tied up the garbage bag and took it to the onsite dumpster. It worked VERY well and I’d absolutely recommend the Loo to anyone traveling with small kids or anyone who doesn’t want to be wandering around a campground at night!

I also got a Queen Sized sleeping bag for me and Adam to use. I sometimes feel squished up in a regular sleeping bag, and it was nice to have one less thing to roll up.


We’re frugal people, and although we did each get a TShirt from Mt. Rushmore and a few more things throughout the trip, we tried to limit our spending. Also, I’m not a fan of clutter.

Collecting magnets on vacation is an inexpensive way to have a souvenir at each stop.

That said, I did collect a magnet from all of our stops, and I love looking at them now that we are home. Magnets are cheap — I think the most expensive one was $4.99, and all of the tourist-type spots have them.

collect one rock per vacation spot and write the name and date with a Sharpie

I also really like the idea of taking 1 rock per place to keep as a momento. This is illegal in a lot of places, though, so if you get in trouble I release all liability!


Yes. In a heartbeat. This was such a fantastic trip, and filled with so many memories. I loved every bit of it, and would highly recommend setting up a longish trip with your own family. One of my favorite things was that we were gone long enough for the daily set up, tear down, driving, etc. to feel like The New Normal. We all got into a groove, as a family, and truly enjoyed living in the moment. In this day and age of being Plugged In at All Times it’s hard to really just live in the moment sometimes.

Since I don’t have a personal facebook page and since Adam and I are pretty private about our family lives and don’t want our kids online, I didn’t feel the need to constantly update social media — I didn’t want anyone to know we were gone, anyway!

it was freeing.

And you should DO IT!


in case you were wondering about the actual itinerary: San Francisco, Reno NV, Wendover NV, Salt Lake City UT, Vernal UT, Rawlins WY, Casper WY, Mt. Rushmore SD, Buffalo WY, Cody WY, Jackson Hole WY, Jerome ID, Winnemucca NV, Lake Tahoe CA

and here was my big WE DID IT! splurge:

frame a large US map and use pushpins to remember all of your stops along the way

Travel Map with Push Pins. The goal is to see if we can get to every state with the kids before they leave for college.


Happy Travels!!

Back to School with Staples — $60 backpack giveaway!

August 20, 2013 by · 154 Comments 

staples back to school backpack


















This contest is now over. Thank you for all who entered!! The winner has been notified via email. Have a great school year!! –steph

Thank you to Staples for providing a backpack for me to review  (and for my daughter to keep), and for providing another backpack for a reader give away. Your generosity is appreciated.

It’s back-to-school frenzy season. I have a bit more time with my kids before they head back — our district isn’t beginning until after Labor Day this year. In fact we JUST got the supply list this past week and I was startled when I checked around that the local stores were already picked clean and were gearing up for Halloween!!


I don’t host very many reviews or giveaways on this site, and opt to keep them on the review page, but wanted to make sure that you don’t miss out on this cool offer.

I’ve got a seventh grader this year.

A VERY PICKY SEVENTH GRADER. (said with love, lots and lots and lots of love. I was picky in seventh grade, too.)

Her chosen backpack last year didn’t hold up to being jammed into a locker and kicked around after school during soccer practice. The bottom seam ripped and I ended up securing it with duct tape in April.

super classy.

The backpack that Staples sent over? It’s wonderful. It’s terribly durable (it’s made by SwissGear, the founders of the Swiss Army Knife) and meets the seventh-grader-it needs-to-look-cool-but-not-too-cool-like-I’m-trying-to-look-cool-test.

I like that there’s a padded pocket in it for future laptop use, and I like that since we don’t have a laptop for her, she can stuff an extra binder into that slot. The straps are nicely padded and don’t dig into her shoulders even when it’s weighed down.

back of backpack

There are a few “secret” compartments, which is quite helpful since she just got braces and needs to carry around dental supplies.

I think you’ll really dig this backpack — it looks like it will hold up for a very long time; I’m impressed.

inside backpack

  Staples has got pretty much anything you might possibly need for back-to-school supplies, and

would like to offer a backpack for the student in your home. One lucky winner will receive a brand new backpack of their choosing — up to a $60 value.

You can choose the one I chose, the SwissGear, or any others from this list, up to $60.

To enter this contest, simply leave a comment below with a valid email address in the email line. I’ll randomly choose a winner in a week — so this contest will end on Tuesday, August 27th at 5pm pacific time.

I’d also like to throw in a copy of my Totally Together: Shortcuts to an Organized Life book for the lucky winner since it follows the school calendar. This is it! This is the year you’re going to get organized! :-)

good luck to all!

this will be the best school year, ever. I promise!


Going on a Vision Quest

September 13, 2011 by · 18 Comments 

We recently got back from a roadtrip to Oregon, where we spent (not enough) time at Crater Lake National Park.

If Crater Lake isn’t on your “we really ought to go there” list, I urge you to write it in. I’m a sucker for National Parks. I like being out in nature, but I like the we’re absolutely and perfectly safe feel the National Parks provide with their paved roads, clearly marked signs, trimmed vegetation, readily available flush toilets, and stocked soap dispensers.

I was startled by the  blueness of this lake— it was as if someone had dumped in a vat of crayola paint— the blue didn’t look natural, and yet it was. After watching the video in the visitor’s center, I learned that for many many years Americans didn’t believe this lake existed— they thought it was a myth. I also learned that Native Americans would have annual pilgrimages to the lake for Vision Quests. They believed that they would discover the answer to all of life’s questions by looking deep into the blue water.

I did not have a epiphany while staring into the water. Instead, I was busy keeping the baby from climbing the safety walls and the big kids from trying to touch the ground squirrels (oh my. they were just too cute).

but I felt different. I was acutely aware that I was in a naturally made location that had been this way for hundreds and hundreds of years. I loved that I was able to see the lake with fresh eyes the way the Native Americans or the original pioneers must have (which is difficult in this day and age, since we have Google Earth!).

I loved being in the moment, pausing, and realizing that my two older kids will remember this trip. They’ll remember driving the 30-mile perimeter, and rolling their eyes every time Daddy pulled over to take “just one more picture.” They’ll remember how their mean old mom banned the Nintendo DS for the day. They’ll remember sitting in the squeaky chairs while watching the long and boring movie, and I’ll remember marveling at how well-behaved they were during the long and boring movie.

They’ll definitely remember the ice cream bar. Ice cream is always remembered.

Everyone’s Vision Quest, or life’s purpose is different, and I’d venture to guess it changes pretty often– depending on your age, your choices, and probably the seasons. The revelation comes when you have this startling deep down feeling that you are doing exactly what it is you are *supposed* to be doing.

and again, this is different for every person. It could be being the best darn teacher, or bank teller, or caregiver, or amusement park ride operator ever. It could be any  number of things—- IT is relative.  But when you’ve found the IT, you’ll know it.

and it will take your breath away.

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