Game nights are typically a bunch of board games on the floor, and maybe some bowls of chips and candy to fuel the competition. But David Burtka and husband Neil Patrick Harris’ game nights are anything but typical. For 15 years, the couple has hosted game night extravaganzas, with themed team charades, fishbowls of gift cards to pick prizes, medals made of giant candy bars, and inventive uses of Scrabble tiles and playing cards for décor.
In fact, they love game nights so much that David dedicated an entire chapter to it in his new cookbook Life Is a Party. It has everything you need to host, from a bumpin’ Spotify playlist—think: Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” and Queen’s “Play the Game”—to a menu of nostalgic junk food favorites like seven-layer dip and meatball sliders. Check out David’s tips for making your game night a winner, plus how he, Neil, and their 8-year-old twins, Gideon and Harper, contribute to make them equal parts high-stakes competition and fun and delicious.
Rachael Ray Every Day: What’s the most memorable game night you ever hosted?
David Burtka: We've been doing game nights forever. Neil is a huge gamer and we love playing games, having fun, and eating crappy food. When I was in culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu, we hosted an Around the World-themed game night, and I made a different course for different countries. We did running charades about the countries, and then ate dumplings for Asia or pastries for France between games. It was a lot of fun.
What are the three essentials of a game night for you?
First, pick a game that breaks the ice. We love running charades—it's charades, but there's two teams. Each team comes off of one list. And it's usually a mix of movies, books, and TV shows, but we like to do movies with a theme. We’ve done a mix of Neil Patrick Harris movies, or movies in the ‘80s, and from the charades, people have to guess the theme. This gets people moving, and teams up people who don’t necessarily all know each other, they start creating bonds.
You also should spend a little time on prizes, because people really love winning stuff. A great incentive is a bunch of gift cards at a drug store, whether it’s restaurants or Starbucks or shopping. Put them all in a giant hat or fishbowl, and then they can close their eyes and pick. If it’s around the holidays, you can even do a White Elephant swap.
There's a part in the night where everyone starts getting a little lull. So after you eat all this great food, have a dessert on the ready as a bit of sugar that's gonna pop everybody up for the next round of things. Or coffee. Or both.
Any unique or weird games you like to throw in the mix?
Have you ever heard of the chocolate game? It’s so fun. You take a giant chocolate bar and freeze it, and then while wearing a hat, gloves, and scarf, people have to cut the chocolate bar with a knife and a fork and eat as much as you can in 30 seconds. Then you have to move on to the next person. Whichever team finishes the chocolate bar first is the winner. It’s ridiculous, and has a bonus sugar rush!
You and Neil have been together for 15 years. How have your game night dynamics changed from when you met to now, having kids?
We used to do a lot more, and longer, crazier nights. Neil and I, we would go until 3:00 in the morning. There would be mood-altering substances and alcohol flowing. Now, 10:00 rolls around and it's like, “Okay guys, get out.”
Who is more competitive: you or Neil?
I think he's way more competitive, 'cause I don't care—I'm usually in kitchen cleaning up. But he’s not that competitive. He just takes it so seriously and he really just loves it so much, so it’s more enthusiasm. The twins, however, are very competitive with each other. There's a twin bond that I think that, if one's getting more attention, the other one wants more attention. It's very interesting to see a twin dynamic, but I think it's healthy for them.
When hosting, do you decide on the games or the food first?
The game—because it's a game night, not a food night. First, I decide if I wanna do a really relaxed game or a more competitive sort of streak, and then if there’s a theme. The recipes in Life Is a Party are a take on that sort of crappy food you grew up on: chicken pot pie, meatball sliders, popcorn, brownies, and seven-layer dip. The dip is great because you don't have to get a big spoonful from a trifle. It's on a flat surface, so you can get a scoop and not commit. (Psst, David’s seven-layer dip recipe here.)
How do you manage eating a dish that requires a fork and using two hands? It’s hard to roll dice or act out charades while chowing down on that.
You split your time: Do your game and be serious about your game, and then go take a break and have some food. Or have a bar people can graze from, like tacos, hot dogs, nachos, or popcorn. It’s relaxed, not a sit-down dinner. And on game night, it’s okay to get messy. We encourage it.
Are Gideon and Harper as into game nights as you and Neil are?
My son had a game night party for his birthday this year, and it was fun. We got the hats with the ping pong balls that you have to throw in, and they just had a blast. It was a half video game party, half active party.
Are they more into board games or interactive trivia types?
We're really loving the Game of Life right now. They're really becoming amazing readers, so Apples to Apples is a really fun game with them. But we also like the outdoor games for the summer, with spoon races, potato sack races, three-legged races, and beach-y ones. Lately, it’s also been a lot of Monopoly. My son is obsessed with wanting to buy property, and I think he's gonna be a hedge fund person or something one day, because he's so obsessed with money. Which is not a very good lesson, I think, but hey—if he's gonna pay for my retirement, I'm all for it.
What do they request to eat at game nights?
They actually came up with recipes in the book! My son, Gideon, came up with the idea to put tater tots on a chicken pot pie, the name, chicken tot pie, as well. He takes full responsibility for that whole entire dish, so we're very proud of it. And my daughter, Harper, is really into baking meringues. When she piped up all these small little meringues, she and Neil said, “You know what these little meringues would be good in? Salty popcorn.” So we combined them and it tasted like kettle corn. And since they’re the same color and size, you take a big handful and it’s a surprise what you’re getting. And that makes life a party.
For more of David's recipes, buy Life Is a Party for $20 on Amazon.