On a recent trip to London, actor Neil Patrick Harris, his husband, chef David Burtka, and their 11-year-old children, Gideon and Harper, did some of the touristy things you’d expect. They visited the Tower of London, castles, and even made time for high tea. They also found time for what Burtka called a “Michelin Star Crawl.” “They were eating the craziest stuff at some of the topnotch restaurants in the world,” he tells Romper. “It’s amazing to see.” It’s also the culmination of an ongoing effort to raise foodies and ensure that being a kid is no excuse not to elevate your palate.
“We’ve always wanted to communicate with our kids as if they were people and not little kids,” Uncoupled star Harris says. “So we have a group aversion to children’s menus at restaurants, because they tend to just be chicken fingers frozen, and basic pasta with butter and coloring book. I just feel there are so many more options for your palate than just the same thing over and over.”
This philosophy has guided not only the pair’s parenting and home life, but their new partnership with HelloFresh (because even chefs need quick and easy meals from time to time). The pair spoke to Romper by phone about raising adventurous eaters, the importance of family dinner, and how where they grew up affects their kitchen today.
I just want to start off, when you guys think about the food culture of your childhood, anything from what family dinners were like or not like, the food scene in your part of the country, your favorite comfort food. What comes to mind for each of you?
David Burtka (DB): The thing that comes to my mind is just togetherness.
Neil Patrick Harris (NPH): David grew up in a Polish family in the middle of Michigan. And so everyone’s gathering for meals was just a part of their life on the regular. I grew up in a small town in New Mexico, so for me meals were simpler. Oftentimes it was taco night or burritos or beans and rice and chicken, and things that were easier to throw on a table, and everyone just eats when they’re hungry. Lots of potlucks, lots of gatherings of a very casual nature. To be honest, that [sense of togetherness] — I don’t mean to spin to HelloFresh — but that’s what motivated this partnership. We legitimately do spend a lot of meals together.
David, I understand you worked with HelloFresh to develop new recipes; what was that process like?
DB: It was great. They looked at my cookbook, Life Is a Party, and we came up with a couple of different recipes to work from. We developed several and we’re releasing four that will be available on Aug. 14. They also include some new cooking techniques in there, like teaching people how to blanch vegetables, which is really cool. Hopefully the people will respond to the recipes that I developed!
You mention family dinners as something important to your family: tell me more about that.
DB: We always make a pact, actually since the kids were babies, to have family dinner together. And family dinner starts, five, six o’clock depending on what after-school stuff is. We all sit down as a family, put away any sort of device, their phones, iPads, anything, and we actually just sit down and have a time to talk and be together, it doesn’t matter what we’re eating, just as long as we’re together and we’re talking and we’re communicating and we’re talking about their day. Neil does this thing with the kids: Rose, Bud, Thorn.
What’s Rose, Bud, Thorn?
NPH: It’s an idea that I think one of the kids actually mentioned that they were doing in class and I thought it was great.
DB: You used to do something like that with your family growing up, right Neil?
NPH: Yeah. We used to do one thing called, “My Day, by…” where we would go around and each person would say “My Day by Mom,” and then she’d say, “OK, I woke up. I took you guys to school. Then I went to…” But it gets long. “Rose, Bud, Thorn” is just three simple things. Rose would be something that you liked and loved and enjoyed about the day. The Thorn would be something that was the challenge for you. And then the Bud would be something that you’re looking forward to. I think it’s great.
David, I have a bunch of chefs in my family and they are very much divided between, “I am not going to cook a damn thing, I do it all day at work, I will use my air fryer for everything” and “All right, I’ve been trying these recipes at my restaurant and you’re going to try all of them.” So where do you fall on that spectrum?
DB: I tend to go in bits. During the summer months we entertain quite a bit. So, I go from like entertaining to “OK, I need three days off.” But we also have a garden that we really use a lot and I feel obligation to use vegetables that are in the garden. So, I’m constantly harvesting and preserving and cooking and stuff and trying some new stuff, so I tend to cook more than I don’t.
NPH: He prides himself on being a provider. It’s an amazing gift, but my goodness, when he says “I’ll just whip together a salad”, it becomes an entire four course situation with all fresh veg from the garden. We’re very fortunate as a family.
Neil, are you handy in the kitchen at all?
NPH: I’m a fairly technical person. So, if I’m given a singular task, I can execute it. I’m good at cake decorating, but probably less effective at the baking part of it. I’m good at plating, and I’m less good at getting everything done at the same time. So, I don’t have the skill set that David has. I’m really good at dishes: my drying skills are impeccable.
DB: He’s a really great help. If I’m the weeds and I need a lifeline, he will pick up the slack, he’ll mandolin and chop and do a lot of picking herbs and things like that. He’s great. In terms of like technical stuff, not so much, but I can handle that. If I can get help with the other stuff, great no problem. He’s awesome.
Are the kids involved in the kitchen?
NPH: The kids pride themselves on their individual skills and they love involving themselves as much as they can. Gideon makes a slow-cooked scrambled egg that he hangs his hat on. Harper has a bunch, she’s got a really good pancake that she will make. They tend to brag during breakfast because we’re usually tired.
DB: They really want to learn; they’re sponges and it’s great, and I love seeing them showing off their friends. Harper made cupcakes with a friend the other day, and they were getting strawberries, and the girl she was with just grabbed the thing of strawberries, she said, “No, no, you need to smell it to see which the freshest one is.” So, I love that they’re using what I teach them, and that’s for pride yourself of that as a parent.
Did you ever have to deal with picky eating with them or have they usually been game for trying things?
DB: They’ve always been great. There’s always a rule at our house: you don’t have to like it, but you have to try it, and they’ll eat whatever we put in front of them. I think as our kids get to school, they start being influenced by other kids, so they started becoming a little picky, but not that bad honestly. So yeah, make them try it, make them try a bunch of different stuff, get involved with it, and you probably won’t have a picky eater. [Gideon and Harper] love eating.
Oh I’ll bet — mine is about the same age and the grocery bills are astounding. What are some of your pantry staples and favorite snacks?
DB: Besides your main things — your kosher salt, your great olive oil, lemons — I make and preserve a lot of my own stuff. So, I have a big jug of kimchi and my daughter will make rice on a rice cooker and she’ll put kimchi and eel sauce on it, and that’s her most favorite snack with tea. Nacho Cheese Doritos is a big thing in our house.
NPH: Chips and salsa. I’m big into hash green chilies at the moment. They come from New Mexico. The kids are all about those, too.
I love the range of highbrow, lowbrow, like “We love this homemade kimchi and also Doritos.” It’s great.
NPH: That’s us.