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For parents who feel like getting the whole family together to share a memorable meal is unattainable these days, Neil Patrick Harris has some tricks up his sleeve.
The talented actor, father, producer, comedian and self-proclaimed food critic knows what it's like to be incredibly busy. In between writing children's books, working as a partner with Pepsi's new sparkling water brand called bubly and shedding weight for his role on the Netflix show, "A Series of Unfortunate Events," Harris is devoted to creating quality time with his husband, chef and actor David Burtka, and their 7-year-old twins, Gideon and Harper.
But how do the busy dads still find time for family and encourage healthy eating habits with their kids when everyone has a packed schedule?
According to Harris, a few little things can make a huge difference. Whether it's sourcing fresh food with his kids or playing a fun game at dinner, Harris shared a few words of wisdom with TODAY Food to inspire life outside of PB&J and cell phones at mealtime.
The healthy dads don't ban junk food.
When it comes to keeping a well-stocked pantry, Harris and Burtka allow of mix of healthy snacks with just a little decadence.
"I like to be as healthy as possible without a stigma — things in moderation so that [kids] are able to make informed decisions instead of having things withheld from them, which just makes kids want them more," Harris told TODAY Food.
For those of us who have battled a 3-year-old from stealthily sneaking a carton of ice cream out of the freezer, this is a good bit of advice ... and, yes, that really happened.
Harris continued, "We keep it as wholesome as possible, not a ton of preservatives and super processed [foods]."
When the kids do crave something sweet, Harris said he allows them to indulge in gelato or ice cream brands that are made with just a few ingredients and don't contain a lot of artificial additives.
Don't be afraid to experiment with different foods early on.
Buying pre-packaged baby food in bulk can be alluring to busy parents. But making mashed foods at home can be surprisingly fast, easy and inexpensive — just ask TODAY's Dylan Dreyer!
When the twins moved on from milk and first started eating solids, Harris and Burtka sourced a lot of ingredients for their homemade mashed meals from local vendors.
"We were lucky enough to live in an area where farmers' markets were abundant," Harris told TODAY. One of Harris' go-to recipes was a simple concoction of freshly pureed carrots. Even if you don't live near a farm, however, most supermarkets are making an effort today to source a variety of fresh produce that can be enjoyed by kids and adults alike.
As Harper and Gideon moved beyond mashed foods, Harris and Burtka didn't hesitate to broaden their horizons. Kids' menus might be kid-friendly, but any food can become a true childhood favorite if little eaters are exposed to new things at a young age.
"We started sushi really early because of the pure protein of [fish]," Harris said. "Their love of sushi branched out into other strange seafood. Gideon loves escargot, nice, thinly-sliced octopus — charred a bit with some lemon and sea salt, mussels, clams," Harris added, before joking, "They must've been Triton and Ariel in a past life."
Dinner time is "family communion."
For Harris, the most important thing for his family when it comes to food boils down to enjoying the final meal of day together.
"We do travel a lot and we're busy a lot, but what's sacrosanct is the family eating dinner together," Harris said. "Whether we're ordering in Chinese food or having a ribeye, it's important to have family communion."
A big part of this "communion" is a dinnertime game Harris calls "My day by..." which the actor said he learned from his parents, so it's become an important family tradition. The point of the game is to have each person at the table turn the events of their day — no matter how mundane or routine — into a story, which not only encourages conversation but keeps all family members up to date on the ins and outs of each others' lives.
Harris gave TODAY Food a taste of how it goes: "So I'd say 'My day by Papa ... I woke up, had coffee, did some organizing, sat with the kids for a while, went to the park and now I'm eating this amazing meal'."
Harris said he always enjoys listening to how his children spend their days, and discovering what they're working on in school (even if they don't find it particularly unusual). As a great storyteller, Harris said he believes this game is truly a great way to facilitate communication at dinnertime.
"We love the family meal," Harris told TODAY Food. "David's a big chef so we barbecue a lot and the kids are starting to be more a part of cooking the meals. Last night, Harper and Dad made Bolognese sauce, which is all our favorites. It was amazing."