“I got her to eat two slices of pizza. And a yogurt.”

This was my mother-in-law, 15 years ago, bragging about her ability to get my oldest daughter to eat. My wife and I weren’t very good at it, she was implying.

The thing is, eating shouldn’t be a competitive sport.

What’s the first thing people ask about a newborn? How much does she weigh? It’s so common we don’t even see how weird it is. Why should I care about the weight of someone’s baby? Isn’t it a little odd if I do? You wouldn’t ask the mother how much she weighs.

Our weight-obsession doesn’t stop there. How do we talk to infants, toddlers, older kids? Oh my, how you’ve grown! You’re so nice and big! Eat eat eat. Have some more. No, of course you’re not full. Have seconds.

Sound familiar? We shouldn’t be surprised when our kids are overweight or have body image issues. We applaud them for overeating when they’re young, so of course they keep doing it when they’re older.

As John Kenneth Galbraith argues in “The Affluent Society,” in the 20th century we began to live in a world of affluence rather than poverty. Most humans now have everything they need to survive and more, but we still act like cave-people who need to struggle for every scrap of food. While Galbraith is talking about economics, the same concept applies to food. We act as if we need to fatten up babies to make sure they survive infancy but, at least in the industrialized world, this simply isn’t the reality. We have the opposite problem, which is nearly as lethal. We gorge ourselves and succumb to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other weight-related maladies.

Here’s the crux of the problem: the paradigm has shifted — from need to abundance — but our thinking hasn’t. Therefore, we need to adjust our thinking. The first step is that simple.

We all know many kids are in poor shape. They’re too heavy, eat too much, don’t eat enough fresh healthy food, eat too much fat, red meat, sugar and chemicals. They don’t exercise enough and, when they do, it’s only because their wristbands tell them to. They sit and stare at screens for far too long. They don’t walk nearly enough because we drive them to playdates across the street.

Fine, we know all that. We may be familiar with the grim statistics as well. According to the CDC, over the past 30 years, obesity has doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents. A 2012 study showed that more than a third of all children are obese or overweight. This figure is expected to rise to 50 percent in the next few decades. The endgame here is hospitalization, disease, amputation, teenage heart attacks, emotional and psychological scars, billions of dollars in health care costs and death. Fine, we’ve heard this, too.

What we may not know is how early it begins.

Sure, there are 25 million overweight teens, tweens and school-age children in the U.S. — and the numbers are still rising, despite “awareness” campaigns — but what about toddlers? Too often, we use food to babysit or anesthetize kids. We need to explore other methods. Play with them more, so they get tired and fall asleep. Take them for a drive or a walk in their stroller. Better yet, get them out of the stroller and walking on their own. Whatever we do, we shouldn’t use food as a pacifier.

We also need to move away from the idea that kids need a constant intake of food and drinks – grazing. This became endemic in the 90s, as the traditional family meal was eroding and people began to eat many smaller meals instead. Moreover, the food companies have marketed snack foods more aggressively, especially to children. Often, these are high-fat, high-calorie, sugar- and preservative-rich junk foods — such as juice and crackers — masquerading as healthy. But don’t be fooled. Juicy Juice, for example, has 26 grams of sugar per eight ounce serving and Sunny D has 27. A Twinkie, on the other hand, has only 19. Beware of yogurt, jarred pasta sauce and fruit snacks. Read the labels and compare. They may not be as healthy as you think.

If your child has a sippy cup growing out of the end of his arm, because he’s carrying it around 24/7, take it away. You can go for a drive without a snack. You don’t need Cheerios in your stroller every time you walk down the street. If they scream, let them scream. If screaming doesn’t get them more food, they’ll eventually stop. (If not, get some good headphones). Remember, it’s perfectly healthy to be a little hungry sometimes. We don’t need to feed children every time they ask for food.

We do this with older kids, too. Ten year olds don't need a shopping cart full of protein bars and Gatorade in the middle of a soccer match. They don’t even need orange wedges. Water is plenty. I’ve played 90 minutes of rugby in 115 degrees of desert heat, and water was enough for me and my teammates. (I cried, sure, but that was only because I got tackled). Anything else can lead to cramps and nausea. Gatorade and protein bars, in any case, are only healthy with a small h. They’re filled with sugar, fat, carbs, sodium and calories — great when you’ve just burned 2,000 calories, but terrible when you haven’t.

There’s nothing wrong with a little food between meals. Grazing is a little different—it’s when you eat so often that there are no substantial breaks in-between. Food becomes a minute-to-minute need, like breathing. Once you get used to nonstop eating, it’s hard to stop. A new study from the Salk Institute shows that in America most of us eat continually throughout the day rather than getting the bulk of our calories from traditional meals. The problem is “we never seem to stop eating,” which leads to obesity. Lora Sandon, Nutrition Professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, comments, “Basically this new study helps confirm what we already suspect,” that grazing “is just not good for our health.”

For many, this starts at birth. Infants have small stomachs, high metabolism and are growing quickly. They require more calories, relative to their size than adults, but they have to consume these calories in smaller portions. Thus, infants need to have many small meals a day. However, many parents are so concerned about their children being undernourished that they overcompensate and feed them too much. According to the Department of Health in the UK, “Three-quarters of babies and toddlers are fed too many calories … these children, although under 18 months old, are at risk of being obese in later life.”

A closely related issue is nursing — whether by breast or bottle — for more than just nutrition. Attachment Parenting International (API) argues that “[b]reast-feeding satisfies an infant's nutritional and emotional needs better than any other method of infant feeding” and encourage mothers to breastfeed for longer than a year. While this is great advice, API also encourages mothers to “feed on cue,” before the baby cries and to practice “comfort nursing,” which means nursing in order to make the baby feels good, even if he doesn’t need milk. While both of these statements have some truth — you want your infant to feel nurtured and safe — the habit of using food to satisfy emotional needs is tricky. Kids learn to associate eating with comfort; a little of this is great, but too much is a recipe for obesity.

As kids get older, their stomachs get bigger so they can go periods of time without eating. Let them. This is crucial in order to develop healthy eating habits. Let them build up a good appetite for meals. Moreover, don’t assume food is healthy because advertisers tell you so. It’s important to tackle these issues now. Even if your kids aren’t overweight or unhealthy now, bad eating habits will eventually catch up with them. Fat and sugar just like nicotine and caffeine are highly addictive. Out stomachs think they need junk food because they’ve gotten a taste for it early in life.

Finally, don’t be so busy that you skip family meals. Eating on the run, wolfing down fast food, eating alone and grazing — these are sure ways to eat less nutritionally and, let’s face it, less enjoyably. The traditional meal allows us to interact socially and enjoy each others’ company, which, from what I’ve read in history books, was one of the original functions of the family unit. Maybe our ancestors knew a thing or two. Maybe even my mother-in-law.