Even parents with the best intentions occasionally fall short when it comes to their kids’ eating habits. Some children are picky eaters or get sabotaged by their friends’ junk foods. The consequences can include low-grade (or subclinical) vitamin and mineral deficiencies that compromise both physical and mental health.

Dietary supplements can reconcile the dietary gap, with some geared toward preventing problems and others giving children an edge in life.

“Nutritional supplementation for children is super important because the foods they tend to like and eat are not nutritious for their growing bodies,” says Fred Pescatore, MD, of New York City and the author of The Allergy and Asthma Cure (Wiley, 2008).

The supplements and doses suggested here are geared for children ages 4 to 16.

Staying healthy.

“It’s simply impossible to get all the nutrition needed, even if your child ate the healthiest diet on the planet,” says Pescatore. “A multi is the best way to ensure that children get the vitamins and minerals missing in their diets.” A quality multivitamin should contain all of the essential vitamins and some minerals, and it should also be age and body-weight appropriate—you wouldn’t give a toddler a supplement formulated for teens.

Dose: Read the fine print to confirm that the Daily Value is roughly 100 percent for vitamins. Minerals will have lower doses because some are too bulky to fit into a capsule. Follow label instructions.

Gut health.

Cesarean section births, antibiotics and poor eating compromise a child’s gut bacteria. Probiotic supplements improve regularity, and two strains, L. rhamnosus and S. boulardii, can reduce diarrhea during and after taking antibiotics. Several strains, including L. casei, L. acidophilus, L. bulgaricus and L. reuteri, protect against diarrhea-causing germs. Caution: Don’t give probiotics to infants without a physician’s guidance. 

Dose: Follow label instructions.

Germ fighters.

Gut health also influences immunity. For example, L. rhamnosus GG reduces upper-respiratory- tract symptoms in children attending day care centers, and B. lactis and L. brevis protect against cold and flu symptoms. Italian researchers reported Streptococcus salivarius K12 reduced the risk of strep infections in children. “Probiotics are the way to go if you want to keep your child’s immune system strong and to help fight any gastrointestinal infections.” Important also: Vitamin D helps children fight infections, too—supplements led to a 42 percent lower risk of contracting the flu.

Dose: Follow label directions for probiotics. For vitamin D, give 1,200 IU daily during winter months and less over summer if children spend time outdoors.

Brain food.

Developing brains require omega-3s, primarily DHA but also EPA, in utero, during infancy and throughout childhood. A British study reported that low levels of DHA were associated with poorer reading ability and memory. In contrast, infants fed omega-3s scored better on rule-learning, inhibition tasks, vocabulary and preschool intelligence from ages 3 to 5.

Dose: Products abound, but opt for one with a higher ratio of DHA to EPA, such as 200 mg of DHA and 100 mg of EPA.

Mood disorders. Nutrients form the basis of more-complex brain chemicals, so it’s not surprising that they impact mood and behavior. Two recent studies found that multivitamin/multimineral supplement use reduced symptoms of ADHD in children. A combination of multis and omega-3s even improves behavior in well-adjusted kids, according to a new study at the University of Oxford. Meanwhile, researchers showed that high-dose EPA (2–4 grams daily) and DHA (2.4 grams daily) enhanced the effects of medications in children with severe depression.

Dose: Look for a high-potency multi, but consider adding 200–500 mg of EPA and 100–300 mg of DHA.