Food Fight! Why Getting Your Kids To Eat Well Is A Battlefield

11/14/2011 12:40 pm ET | Updated Jan 14, 2012

History is littered with the names of great military leaders. Caesar. Elizabeth I. Napoleon. Washington. These are men and women who achieved impressive victories and stood firm in the face of impossible odds.

I have no doubt, however, that these exemplars would cower in fear before the military precision and steely determination of a type-A mother who wants to introduce her first-born to solid food or later tries to convince her teenager that chips and soda don't qualify as a meal.

The Spanish Armada sailing toward England? Washington crossing the Delaware? Nothing compared to trying to convince an adolescent that Gatorade and pizza are not, in fact, food groups. You want to discuss modern warfare? Talk to parents who cook for their kids -- we are four-star generals in the kitchen every single day.

Before I became a parent, I never dreamed I'd spend much time thinking about what someone else eats. The birth of my son changed all that. I started spending a lot of time thinking about everything that went into his mouth. I had a plan. I'd expose him to new foods slowly to reduce his risk of developing allergies. No refined sugar would touch his lips. A vast array of fruits and vegetables would comprise the bulk of his diet. He would shun artificial flavors and processed foods.

My campaign went as I intended. My son loved spinach, carrots, kale, sweet potatoes, peas and corn. He ate quinoa, lentils, and purees I made from scratch. He didn't know what candy was and scarfed down the sugar-free, dairy-free applesauce cupcake I made for his first birthday. Life was good.

I was smug. I looked down on parents who let their kids eat pre-made meals and lollipops. I judged. I was not raising one of those finicky eaters who hated the green bits in his pasta sauce, the crust on bread, or anything that wasn't orange.

Then it all went to hell. (Experienced parents: stop laughing. I am sufficiently humiliated and humbled, thank you very much.)

Now three and a half, my son generally refuses to eat anything but PB&J, chicken fingers and Cheerios. He craves sugar like an addict craves crack. Dinner is a nightly battle to get him to eat at least one vegetable (although if I counted French Fries as veggies, I could save myself a lot of trouble). Articles telling me that, on average, a kid won't like a new food until he's tried it at least seventeen times aren't helping.

I own the cookbooks that tell you how to sneak pureed vegetables into brownies and mac 'n cheese and you know what? My kid can taste the difference. And frankly, on this one, I'm with the kid. If you're going to have a brownie, have a real brownie -- one with lots of fat and sugar and gooey chocolate. Let's not pretend it's health food. Besides, I love to cook and putting spinach in a food processor so I can hide it in recipes is bringing me down.

I've tried everything. My son helps cook -- he even has his own apron and whisk. He can choose from two options for dinner. We go grocery shopping together so he can pick things he'd like to try. I scour blogs and recipe sites for kid-friendly meals and read other parents' insights as to how to make quick, delicious entrees that won't end up in the garbage disposal.

We talk with my son about the importance of good food to make his body strong so he doesn't get sick and will have lots of energy to play. He nods very seriously and agrees with everything I say. Five seconds later, he asks for marshmallows. He is my own personal Spanish Armada.

I want to cram him full of gummy vitamins and wait until he grows out of it.

Unfortunately, I'll be waiting a long time because I have a teenager too, and -- surprise! -- they bring their own set of challenges to the dinner table (if you can get them to sit down). Although my stepson has a broader range of "acceptable" foods and eats certain vegetables at dinner, on the whole, he's only as healthy as your average high school sophomore.

Which means that, like most kids his age, he's susceptible to advertising, the prevalence of cheap processed food, and the influence of his peers. As far as I can tell, adolescence is the Dark Ages of nutrition -- and you can forget about trying to replace his preferred foodstuffs with their organic, slightly less toxic substitutes. I learned the hard way. A potato chip is a potato chip, right? Not so much.

"Everything in this house is organic!" my stepson complained. My attempt to explain that I buy organic because I love him was met with a look of incredulity. I could not possibly be serious. If I loved him, I'd start buying Lays potato chips. He's the French Resistance to my army of nutritional occupation.

So, my husband and I attack on two fronts. We love good healthy food. (In the interest of full-disclosure, I have a weakness for cheese puffs, but I hide my stash. This is strictly "Do as I say, not as I do" territory.). We want our kids to share our passion for butternut squash soup, vegetable stir-fry and bok choy. We are united in our desire to help them make healthy choices, but we also recognize that we aren't going to win this war overnight.

So we compromise. We infiltrate.

I buy the healthier, organic version of snacks. We always have fresh fruit on hand. I insist that my son have at least one vegetable with dinner, even if that means a single baby carrot. We work with my stepson to create a menu of homemade meals that he enjoys, but in the spirit of minimizing rebellion, we occasionally cave and buy him sports drinks. (The soda ban in our house, however, is entirely non-negotiable. This is my Maginot Line.) I bake cookies to make amends for exposing them to so many vitamins and nutrients.

We do what we can. This is a long-term siege.

And, when all else fails, I cram them full of gummy vitamins. I'm sure George Washington would do the same.