Children aren’t just smaller versions of adults. They have a unique set of nutritional requirements because they’re growing rapidly and absorbing vast amounts of information from myriad sources (not that they’re listening to you, but that’s another story). Naturally, you want to provide them with the best nutrients for body and brain. But are supplements really necessary?

Most likely, the answer is yes. “Children today are growing up in a convenience-food culture; foods are often from restaurants, and even home-prepared meals commonly come from a box, can, or some other package,” says Anne Zauderer, DC, who focuses on children in her nutritionally oriented practice in Wichita, Kansas. Because processed foods tend to lack nutritional density, “supplements are paramount,” she says.

Zauderer, who has two children of her own, admits it can be tough to get children to consistently take vitamins—but don’t turn supplements into a food fight. Her suggestion: Keep things simple, and start the habit early. “Children want nothing more than to grow up big and strong, and they become more committed when you explain that vitamins will help,” she says. For kids ages 5 to 12, start with these supplements, listed in priority order.

Multivitamins. Lots of kids start out as picky eaters, and many school lunches remain nutritional disasters. To shore up kids’ diets, naturopath Nancy Aton, ND, of Tucson, Arizona, urges parents to every morning give kids a multivitamin designed specifically for children. These contain all essential vitamins and at least some minerals, but check the fine print. Not all ingredients will reach 100 percent of the recommended daily amounts (it’s impossible to squeeze bulky minerals into one capsule), but choose brands that come close.

Unfortunately, nearly all children’s supplements use sweeteners to mask some vitamins’ unpleasant taste (B vitamins, in particular, are extremely bitter). Zauderer suggests multis that list no more than
2 grams of caloric sweeteners per dose—and of course, no high-fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners or colors.

Dose: at least three times per week, and preferably daily

Cod-liver oil. This was the de rigueur supplement in your grandparents’ day, when kids tolerated its yucky taste. It’s a great liquid source of omega-3 fish oils—the ultimate brain food—along with some vitamin A and D, which other omega supplements lack. Some adult versions may be too potent, so opt for a children’s formula; many brands now add lemon or other fruit flavor, making it far more palatable. Look for one that combines docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA); but given a choice, DHA is more important for kids’ brain development. For kids who can take capsules, other omega-3 sources, such as krill or sardine oil (or, for vegetarians, algae-derived DHA), work fine.

Dose: 200–300 mg each of DHA and EPA daily

Vitamin D. Most multis and fish oils don’t provide a lot of vitamin D, which builds strong bones and fights colds, flus, and other infections. If your kids spend most of their time indoors, and especially during the winter, give them extra vitamin D. You can add taste-free vitamin D drops directly to food.

Dose: 1,000–2,000 IU daily, with the higher dose for older, physically bigger kids

Quercetin. If your kids suffer from seasonal allergies, Aton suggests quercetin. A recent human study found that supplements of this antioxidant, found in small amounts in apple and onion skins, blunted the allergic response. Quercetin works by inhibiting the activity of mast cells, which release histamine and cause nasal and itchy reactions. Some preliminary evidence suggests quercetin might also help relieve asthma symptoms.

Dose: 200–500 mg daily