NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (AP) _ At one preschool, the ABC's stand for apples, broccoli and carrots.
As schools nationwide contend with an epidemic of obese youngsters, the Nutritional Sciences Preschool at Rutgers University has been teaching children as young as 3 to choose fruit and vegetables over junk food. And the kids seem to like it.
``We love broccoli!'' 3-year-old sisters Sara and Molly Balsamo of Milltown told preschool director, Harriet Worobey, one day last week.
In another class, 5-year-old Justin Najimian of East Brunswick told a visitor everyone should eat lots of bananas and apples and that his favorite snacks are pretzels and bananas.
``It's a really cool school,'' he added.
Founded in 1991, the half-day preschool's curriculum focuses on nutrition. While there is the standard preschool fare such as reading readiness, art and science, each day includes at least 30 minutes of nutrition lessons _ some prepared by the dozens of Rutgers education and nutrition students who earn credits for helping out.
Often, an entire class is on nutrition: the benefits of vitamins, what foods contain them, how calcium strengthens bones, and how to make nutritious, even artistic snacks such as meatless pizza muffins or animal-shaped salads.
The teachers and student helpers incorporate the lessons into story time, sing-alongs, puzzles, art projects and puppet shows. The children also play ``cook'' or ``restaurant'' using the classroom's pretend kitchen and menus and help the adults prepare snacks in a real kitchen.
Versions of the Food Guide Pyramid, in wood, plastic and fabric, are everywhere. Last semester, nutritional science major Sarita Gokarn, 20, used a 3-D pyramid to teach which foods should be eaten often or sparingly and said the children all gave correct answers.
Worobey, who provides newsletters and other nutrition information for parents, said parents of former students tell her they're still eating healthily. Many students make a food pyramid for the family refrigerator and mark each time they eat a healthy snack.
``I'm telling you, they love fruit, they will eat vegetables,'' said Worobey. ``They're very interested in their bodies. They want to grow up healthy.''
A study Rutgers did in 2000 on 35 preschoolers found that by semester's end, the group that was taught only standard preschool lessons was eating twice as much processed food as the group that learned about nutrition. The latter group also sharply cut fast-food meals, a sign they might be influencing parents.
Mark Ginsberg, executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, said considerable research shows what children learn young can set lifelong patterns.
``Teaching people behaviors that are health-promoting early in life, I think has the potential for enormous payoffs in time,'' he said.
Rebecca Reeves, president-elect of the American Dietetic Association, said schools in recent years have been putting nutrition lessons into science and other classes, mainly in the lower grades. She said more research is needed on how kids' feelings about nutrition affect parents and how long kids retain such lessons.