NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — As schools nationwide contend with an epidemic of obese kids, one preschool has been teaching children as young as 3 to choose fruit and veggies over junk food.
Youngsters at the Nutritional Sciences Preschool at Rutgers University — thought to be the country's only preschool with a curriculum focused on nutrition — seem to enjoy both their lessons and the healthy snacks served there.
"We love broccoli!" 3-year-old sisters Sara and Molly Balsamo of Milltown told the preschool's 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 at the Department of Nutritional Sciences at Cook College, the agricultural school at Rutgers, is open to local residents and children of Rutgers faculty and staff.
While Worobey and a second teacher cover 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 each week.
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.
Kids play 'cook'
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.
Worobey, who provides newsletters and other nutrition information for parents, said she's sure kids remember the nutrition lessons because parents of former students tell her they're still eating healthily. Many students make a food pyramid for the family refrigerator and mark off every 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 half given only standard preschool lessons were eating twice as much processed food as the half learning 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.
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"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.
The message can be lost if parents don't support it by buying healthy foods rather than candy and chips. Reeves said more research is needed on how kids' feelings about nutrition affect parents and how long kids retain such lessons.
Kalpana Thakker of Piscataway, whose 5-year-old, Kunal, attends the preschool, is sure of its impact.
"Since he learned about nutrition here, if I give him something to eat he'll ask me, 'Mommy, is this nutritious?'" she said.
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