Dining Out with IC
her you rarely dine out or you're a frequent restaurant patron,
having IC is no reason not to enjoy a great restaurant meal. If you've
already identified your IC food triggers and are familiar with the IC diet,
with a few modifications, you can follow most of the same smart-eating habits you do at home.
Here are some steps you can take that may make your restaurant experience
#1: Be Prepared:
Remember that stress alone can set off a sensitive bladder. Planning ahead gives you a sense of control, confidence that you can handle the situation, and sets your mind at ease. So before you go out to eat, make a plan and give yourself plenty of time to get ready Then take a deep breath and... r-e-l-a-x. I find playing some restful, soothing music while I get ready to leave puts
me in a calm and positive frame of mind.
If you're new to IC and tend to forget which foods you can and can't
have, make up a little reminder card you can slip in your wallet or purse that
lists your food triggers.
Another good idea is a "dining out kit" you can just grab and take with
you. Check the travel-aids and travel-sized product aisle of your local
drugstore for a small plastic container. In it you might put your favorite
acid neutralizers (Tums or Prelief perhaps). With some planning you can also
stock your kit with baking soda-filled gelatin capsules. (Some health food
stores sell empty gel caps you can fill at home. Otherwise, ask your
pharmacist for baking soda in pill or capsule form-- companies do make it.)
Extra doses of your usual pain medication are good to have in the kit-- pain
can be easier to control if
you attack it before it becomes intolerable... or before the food you've eaten
makes it flare. Include one "emergency" dose of all of your usual medications.
If you take Elmiron, you will have to make sure you take it at least an
hour before meals or two hours after. To remind yourself to take a dose of
Elmiron before going out to eat, you can attach a little label to the "dining
out kit" that says "did you take your Elmiron?" in bright red letters.
If you have a "can't wait" card (the ICA produces them), be sure to
include it with your kit if you don't always carry it in your wallet. Ladies
might find it convenient to include some extra Kleenex too, just in case the
If you know you're dining out in the evening, plan your food choices earlier in the day.
You'll enjoy the dining experience more-- and feel more relaxed and in control-- if you are feeling good prior to leaving the house. If
you've cheated on your IC diet earlier in the day, this may not be the evening
to throw caution to the wind. On the other hand, if you've dutifully stuck to
your diet earlier in the day, you will have more latitude and may be able to
"get away with" a little treat that evening.
One other thing to mention on the subject of dietary "cheating": You can cheat bigger if you don't cheat on your diet often. For instance, let's say you're very sensitive to chocolate and coffee. Iif you've stuck to your diet faithfully for a couple of months and haven't been eating anything that bothers your bladder, you may be able to get away with a luscious chocolate dessert with a frothy cappucino. On the other hand, if you were cheating every couple days over the last month or so, you may not be able to get away with that same dessert and coffee.
Get to know other local IC patients through support groups. Exchange
names of favorite restaurants and "safe dishes". (Keeping a written list is
helpful if, like me, you find yourself forgetting things).
#2: Choose the restaurant wisely
The choice of restaurants can affect your ability to order a healthy and
painless meal. When you first have IC it may be advisable to try restaurants
that serve a variety of menu alternatives, not just one style of cooking.
You'll have more choices. Later you can be adventurous and try ethnic or
specialty restaurants that are more restrictive in their menu.
Select restaurants that prepare food to order. They are more likely to
special requests and less likely to rely on additive-loaded pre-prepared
Don't be afraid to get information before arriving. You can call ahead
and find out if that Chinese place uses MSG or serves any dishes not made with
On days that aren't rushed and you're feeling fairly good, take ten
stop by restaurants that look interesting and ask to see a menu (many
restaurants have menus posted outside). People are generally very helpful and
kind if you simply let them know you have a medical diet to contend with.
Later on, if you need to quickly think of a place you can eat, you're armed
with some idea of who serves what.
Keep an "ace up your sleeve" food wise. If you're new to having IC,
probably find out rather quickly that fast-food places with preservative-laden
foods are not very IC-friendly. Don't write them off entirely though. It is
definitely worth the effort to find at least one item at one nationwide fast-
food place that your bladder can tolerate. Fast-food chains are found most
everywhere and their biggest plus for IC patients is consistency of the menu.
Though the food's not glamorous, when you're traveling, a pain-free fast-food
meal is better than none at all.
#3: Know the menu
Look for foods with simple preparation (such as steamed vegetables or
broiled fish). Fancy sauces, breading, or stuffings are the parts that are
most likely to contain hidden bladder irritants. (Restaurants that advertise
"heart-healthy" menus will have plenty of simply prepared foods).
Knowledge of cooking terms is helpful though I've seen a few restaurants
take liberties with the meaning of sauces. A food described as "scalloped" for
instance, is usually prepared with a white sauce of milk and flour.
Occasionally restaurants will add aged cheese though (which would make it more
of an "au gratin" sauce).
Here are some other sauces and what they're likely to contain:
Try to choose a varied meal of meats, vegetables, grains etc. Not only
have a more nutritionally balanced meal, but you dilute any bad effects. If
one of your choices turns out to contain a bladder irritant, it's better that
you didn't make the whole meal of it.
- Alfredo: A creamy Italian sauce with aged Parmesan cheese (an aged
- Bechamel: Made with wheat flour and some onion.
- Bearnaise: A thick French sauce made with vinegar, onions and wine
(though the wine's alcohol cooks off).
- Ragu Bolognese: Has tomatoes.
- Hollandaise: Made with egg and usually vinegar and/or lemon juice.
- Marinara: A tomato-based sauce.
- Vinaigrette: An oil and vinegar mixture.
- Primavera: Not a sauce, it refers to dishes garnished with slightly-
cooked or raw vegetables.
Ask for sauces to be served on the side.
Don't be tied to menu classifications. You can turn a "safe" appetizer
into a whole meal by adding bread, a vegetable or dressing-free salad, and a
simple ice cream dessert. A baked pear dessert can become a side dish by
asking for it to be served with your dinner.
Don't get stuck in time. If they hand you a dinner menu and nothing looks
promising, ask if you can still order from the lunch or breakfast menu. Again,
telling the staff that you have a medical problem can be helpful.
Ask how the food is prepared. If the menu isn't clear or the food isn't
don't be afraid to ask what ingredients are used.
Nothing on the menu suits your needs? Ask if you can order "special
#4: Help yourself
Every one of us has a powerful need to be accepted by others, but
sometimes the pressure to conform comes from within us, not from others. If
you're dining with others be prepared to be "odd man out" and order what you
want in spite of what everyone else is ordering.
If others you are dining with appear impatient, sometimes a few words of
explanation helps: "Do you guys mind if I take a little longer to order? I'm
on a medical diet and need to ask some questions first." Many IC patients have
food allergies and often just mentioning that you have a food allergy can
satisfy the curiosity of those you're dining with.
If the food isn't prepared as you ordered, don't be afraid to send it
back or ask for something else if necessary. This isn't being picky, it's
being sensible and asking for your needs to be respected.
Being assertive in restaurants pays big dividends in terms of bladder
comfort. It doesn't mean you have to be rude, disrespectful or intimidating.
It just means you politely ask for what you need and give others the
opportunity to meet those needs.
#5: Food safety
There's only one thing worse than having a bladder flare from restaurant
and that's having a food-borne bacterial illness on top of the IC flare.
When you check out a restaurant for the bladder-friendliness of its food,
check for general cleanliness. Although you probably can't see what the
kitchen is like, you can tell a lot about a restaurant by looking carefully at
the places you can see.
- Are the tablecloths, glasses and dishes clean?
- Are the restrooms clean and well supplied?
- Is the exterior clean with no uncovered garbage?
- Is the cold food well chilled and the hot food really piping hot?
I hope these suggestions are helpful. Dining out when you have IC can still
be fun, it's just a bit more work. If you have comments or suggestions for
future columns, please email me. I'd love to hear from
This article originally published Mar 1999, revised and updated by the author Oct 2003.
The Interstitial Cystitis Network
All rights reserved.