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Elmo, Oscar and Big Bird have helped millions of preschoolers master their 1-2-3s and ABCs.
Now the friendly, furry monsters on "Sesame Street" have decided to help build healthy bodies in addition to healthy minds, a response to the child obesity crisis in America.
Even Cookie Monster will learn that his favorite chocolate chip treats are only a "sometimes" food.
Health and nutrition are major themes of the 36th season of "Sesame Street," which began last week on PBS stations nationwide. Every other day, parents can expect songs and skits about eating colorful fruits and vegetables, exercising, getting enough sleep and even accepting those who are overweight.
There also will be a "Healthy Moment" at the beginning of every show, with celebrities and special guests including Grammy award winner Alicia Keys, New York Yankees manager Joe Torre and all-time "Jeopardy!" champ - and Utahn - Ken Jennings.
As always, the Muppet stories are written with humor and their messages are designed to entertain children and adults.
"It was particularly important for us when dealing with a topic such as health to choose child-relevant issues, such as trying new healthy foods and simple exercises and make them exciting and attractive," said Lewis Bernstein, "Sesame Street" executive producer.
The health-focused episodes are just part of the nonprofit Sesame Workshop's companywide initiative called "Healthy Habits for Life."
Besides the health-related episodes, parents can expect books, magazines and DVDs as well as organic and low-fat food products aimed at their toddlers.
In the works are healthy snacks like Big Bird Green Apple applesauce and Sesame Street oatmeal.
A new Web site, http://www.sesameworkshop.org/healthyhabits, provides games, activities, even printable awards for children who try a new vegetable. There are also articles on numerous topics, including how to deal with picky eaters and how to encourage exercise.
But can a cookie-less monster really entice children to eat their vegetables - something parents have been trying to do for generations?
"We looked into whether or not a popular character, such as Elmo, would drive a child to want to eat a healthy food such as broccoli," said Rosemarie Truglio, Sesame Workshop's vice president for education and research. "We have found that in fact, when you couple a not-so-favorite food item with a popular character, children are saying they are willing to try it."
Of course, said Truglio, that has been the "beauty and the power" of the Muppets since they first appeared in 1969, "to make this a fun and engaging experience and along the way learn life issues."
The healthy eating campaign is a baby step in solving a major U.S. health issue. During the past two decades, childhood obesity has doubled, with almost 15 percent of children and adolescents from 6 to 19 years considered overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The messages preschoolers get from television can definitely affect what they want their parents to buy, said Shelley Brown, a pediatric dietitian at Primary Children's Medical Center in Salt Lake City, who was pleased to learn about the new "Sesame Street" health focus.
"Kids bug their parents all the time to buy less-nutrient-dense food," she said, noting that for every $100 spent on promoting fruits and vegetables there is nearly $1,000 spent on unhealthy foods like soda and candy.
"Maybe if children are seeing good foods presented in a fun and exciting way they will try strawberries or mangoes," Brown said. (Cookie Monster sings about mangoes in one of the segments.)
"Certainly children and adults are not going to cut out sweets and cookies all the time," she added. "But hopefully what will sink into children's brains - and their parents' and caretakers' as well - is that kids don't need to be eating sugary food like cookies and punch every day."
How to get there
"Sesame Street" airs weekdays at 6:30 a.m. on KUED Channel 7 and at 7 a.m. on KBYU, Channel 11.
For more information on the "Sesame Street" healthy eating campaign see http://www.sesame workshop.org/healthyhabits/.
More food on PBS
What we eat, how we eat it and with whom we share our meals reveals more about us than almost anything else. Food is much more than simple nourishment. Now "The Meaning of Food," a new series on public television, explores the role food plays in our lives. Host Marcus Samuelsson, the award-winning chef of New York's Aquavit and Riingo, travels across America breaking bread with Americans from all backgrounds. The three-part series visits home kitchens, restaurants, pastry bake-offs, lunch trucks, burger joints, an elaborate Italian wedding banquet and a Bengali fertility feast. It airs on KUED Channel 7, Saturdays at 7 p.m. The series includes personal stories, such as a former Texas convict who prepared final meals for those about to be executed; a Holocaust survivor who recalls the power food had for women in a Nazi concentration camp; and a Seattle-based Greek immigrant who has suffered tragic loss but finds joy and hope by opening a restaurant.
- Kathy Stephenson