Cooking Tips for Heartburn-Friendly Meals

Having heartburn doesn’t mean you have to give up eating well.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on January 23, 2009
4 min read

Cooking for family gatherings at my house is a little like trying to negotiate an international truce. My father says garlic and onions give him heartburn. My brother-in-law won’t touch anything with tomato sauce. He says it gives him heartburn. And after years of priding myself on having a cast iron stomach, I’ve begun to have problems after very spicy meals. That’s right. They give me heartburn.

What’s an avid home cook to do? The challenge is all the more difficult because there’s no single food or type of food that can be labeled “heartburn food.”

Some people get heartburn, a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), from citrus. Others have trouble after drinking alcohol or caffeinated coffee. Even chocolate can cause heartburn for some people.

And a particular ingredient that bothers someone after one meal may cause no problems at all after another. Still, a few tips can help you serve up a healthy, hearty, heartburn-friendly meal that won’t leave your family and friends suffering afterwards.

The list of heartburn-inducing foods is long. But some ingredients stand out as frequent heartburn triggers. These include tomatoes and tomato-based sauces, citrus, chocolate, and mint. If someone in your household suffers from acid reflux, try avoiding these items. Then watch to see if doing so provides heartburn relief. Some alternatives:

  • At breakfast, serve apple, pineapple, or other non-citrus juices.
  • Offer tea as an alternative to coffee.
  • Check out recipes for no-tomato casseroles, lasagna, homemade pizzas, and other main courses. For example, pesto or olive oil combined with parsley and garlic makes a great pasta sauce.
  • For desserts, serve fruit slices or cooling fruit ices instead of chocolate-rich items.

“Fatty foods can increase the risk of heartburn because they take longer to digest, lingering in the stomach and putting more upward pressure on the valve that leads up to the esophagus,” says dietitian Elaine Magee, MPH, RD. Magee is author of Tell Me What to Eat If I Have Acid Reflux. Her advice?

  • Bake or broil foods instead of frying them.
  • In recipes that include cream, try substituting low-fat yogurt.
  • In casseroles and stir-fries, cut back on the meat portions and add more vegetables.
  • Include whole grains such as brown rice or quinoa in place of refined grains. The added fiber is healthy in its own right and can make a meal more filling with less fat and fewer calories.

Perhaps the most effective way of preventing heartburn is to limit portion size. “The bigger the meal, the greater the risk of reflux,” says Yale University gastroenterologist Anish Sheth, MD. It’s easy for portion sizes to creep up in the kitchen. Magee advises:

  • Use measuring cups to limit how much you cook.
  • Dine on smaller plates so that less still looks like a lot.
  • Go for intensity over quantity. For example, if you love chocolate -- frequently cited as a heartburn trigger -- enjoy a small square of dark chocolate instead of a big chocolaty dessert.

“Drinking water can help dilute stomach acids and reduce the risk of reflux,” says Sheth. “Water can also soothe the burn when heartburn strikes by washing stomach acids out of the esophagus.”

Avoid carbonated water. Carbonated water can increase stomach pressure and lead to belching. Belching causes the valve at the top of the stomach to open, which increases the likelihood of acid reflux and heartburn.

Eating too fast can lead to overeating. That increases pressure on the valve at the top of the stomach. Eating just before bedtime also adds to the danger of reflux, since your stomach is likely to be full when you lie down.

“Plan meals at home early enough to allow three hours before bedtime -- plenty of time for the stomach to clear its contents,” advises Lauren Gerson, MD, a gastroenterologist at Stanford University.

  • After a big meal, encourage family members to get up and get moving rather than stretching out on the sofa. Being upright helps keep food from refluxing.
  • And of course, a brisk walk around the neighborhood instead of half an hour of television can also help control your weight, another important way to put out the fire of heartburn.