It's the most wonderful time of the year...and also the most stressful. Amidst work, shopping, social events, and gift wrapping, it's far too easy to reach for the phone and order a pizza on a hectic night. Want to ensure that your family still enjoys nutritious meals (and save that pizza money for gift shopping!)? Read on for tips to keep cooking during the chaos of the holiday season.

1. Keep It Simple

This is not the time of year for complicated recipes and hours in the kitchen. Focus on family favorites that can be prepared in short order: tacos, burgers, salads, pasta dishes, or simple meats. Remember that every meal does not have to be a 4-course culinary adventure! An entree with a vegetable or salad side is nutritionally smart and easy to prepare.

2. Create a Favorites File

Using a stack of simple index cards, create a file of your family's favorite meals. Describe the meal on the front of the card, reference where the recipe can be found, and jot down necessary ingredients on the back. If you're a bit of an organizing addict (like me), you can file these by type or even by cooking time. When you're ready to plan your meals, you can flip through the cards for ideas, and then use the card backs to create a grocery list.

3. Make a List and Check It Twice

Planning is an absolute necessity during this busy time of year. Grab a notebook and pen, a cup of coffee, and a quiet corner — and start writing down meal ideas. Aim for at least a week's worth of meals, but don't hesitate to plan out an entire month! Create a grocery list using these meal ideas. To make shopping even more efficient, organize your list by category: produce, meat, dairy, packaged goods. Here's the really important part — take the list to the store! Focus on buying ONLY what you've planned for.

4. Cook in the Crock

Crock-pot cooking can be a lifesaver during busy times! What could be easier than throwing all of the ingredients into the crock in the morning, then going about your (busy) day? Check out recipe sites such as Slow & Simple or A Year of Slow Cooking for tasty crock-pot meals. Keep in mind, also, that crock-pot recipes can be easily modified. My family loves swedish meatballs, so I make an easy veggie version using frozen mushroom meatballs. It's great to come home at the end of the day and only have to toss a few egg noodles into a pan!

5. Start a New Tradition

Some of our favorite mealtime traditions began during the busy holidays! Your kids will love Breakfast for Dinner night, or Baked Potato Bar night. We often enjoy an easy fondue dinner during the holidays. Simply cut up bread and veggies, and heat up an easy cheese sauce. Other ideas: soup and salad, sandwiches, or appetizer night.

6. Take the Time to Dine

With a little extra planning, you can focus on what is really important during the holidays (and all year long!) — family time. Make it a point to sit down at the table for dinner every night. Light a few candles, put out cloth napkins, and take a break from the busyness of the season. Reminisce about holidays, share highs and lows from your day, or have everyone mention something that they're grateful for. May your holidays be more magic than madness!

More Parenting Squad Holiday Guides