Meals packed with love

From traditional Indian dishes to pasta and fried noodles, student Sowmya Raghavan, 17, never really knows what she is going to have for lunch in school.

But one thing is for sure - it is going to be delicious.

That is because her lunch is prepared by her mother, Mrs Ananthalakshmi Raghavan, 50, who wakes up at 5am on weekdays to do so.

She adds that she is one of the few students at Hwa Chong Institution to pack lunch to school, but she is not worried about looking "uncool".

"To me, the lunch box is a necessity," she says.

Sowmya, who is a Hindu vegetarian, says her school canteen offers few options that cater for her diet.

"Some students complain that our canteen has only six stalls. I, on the other hand, can eat from only half of them and probably about three dishes in total."

Moreover, she enjoys the convenience that having a packed lunch box affords her. She can eat whenever she is hungry, even in class when she has back-to-back lectures.

Since her mother is always generous with the amount of food she packs, she has enough to last her even on days when she has Co-Curricular Activities (CCAs).

"I get hungry on days when I have to stay back for my CCAs, which end about 7pm, but the canteen closes at 3.30pm," says Sowmya, who is on the debate and mountain-trekking teams.

There is a cafe in school that opens till 5pm which sells pastries such as cinnamon rolls, cookies and tiramisu, but they do not appeal to her. She also finds it inconvenient to go out of school for dinner.

Mrs Raghavan, who owns a tuition centre, has been packing for Sowmya and her elder brother, Siddarth, 22, since they were in primary school.

She describes it as a deep-seated maternal need to provide for her children.

"I feel happy and secure when I cook for them and know that they are being taken care of. The joy I get makes me go back to it every morning," she says.

The cooking takes her about 30 minutes because she assembles the ingredients the night before.

She tells SundayLife! that a boxed lunch, or tiffin, was ubiquitous during her time, about 20 years ago in India.

She packed lunch herself even when she was attending university in Bangalore.

She, along with her family members, moved to Singapore 12 years ago.

Her son, who is now studying engineering at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, is Singaporean and the rest of them are permanent residents here.

"My classmates and I would sit under a tree, open our tiffins and share food with one another. It was a fantastic way to bond. It was the most memorable part of our day," she recalls.

But in Singapore, the lunch box is more commonly seen in primary schools.

Private tutor Delci Khoo, 41, has been packing snacks for her two children's recess in school since 2011.

She says that it started because of a request from her nine-year-old daughter, Zoe Sol, who is now in Primary 4.

"There is always a long queue at her canteen and she eats very slowly. Her break is only 30 minutes. If I don't pack for her, she won't get to finish her food."

Ms Khoo packs finger food such as sandwiches, buns and sushi for Zoe and heavier meals such as fried noodles, rice and pasta for her elder child, Ethan, who is in Primary 6. She wakes up about 5.30am and takes about 45 minutes to prepare the two lunch boxes.

To make the lunch boxes look brighter and more cheery, she adds colour in the form of fruit and vegetables such as strawberries and corn, which are also healthier.

The packed meals are a hit with Zoe and Ethan's friends, who will sometimes ask if they can try the food.

Ethan says that his friends are impressed with how his mother decorates his lunch boxes.

"They don't think it's childish. My friends envy me," he says.

He also enjoys variety when he trades his food with three or four friends who also bring packed food to school. He once exchanged some M&M's candies, which his mother had packed for him as a treat, for pizza.

He still eats at the canteen occasionally when he has to stay back in school for supplementary lessons and he would order dishes such as chicken chop rice and wonton noodles.

"But my mum's cooking is nicer and I can request for food I like such as pineapple fried rice, which I can't get at my canteen," he adds.

In nine-year-old Olivia Quek's lunch box (above, right), what stands out is not the food, but the little notes left by her mother, actress Karen Tan.

Says the Primary 3 pupil at Singapore Chinese Girls' School: "If she packs a banana in my lunch box, she would write on the skin 'Am I a-peeling (appealing)?' On other days, it might be a simple 'Have a good day in school'."

She adds that she does not get some of the jokes at first, but when she does, she would have a good laugh with her friends. The notes brighten her day.

Leaving notes like these is a way to show her children that she cares about them, says Ms Tan, 47, who also has an elder daughter Rachel, 18.

She started packing lunch for her children last March because her rehearsals for a play, The Bride Always Knocks Twice, had taken up the bulk of her day from 2 to 11pm.

"I was feeling guilty that I was seeing less of my children. I wanted to do something that would let them know that I was still thinking of them."

And when she found out that Olivia was feeling stressed about attending a new primary class this year, she decided to leave her notes inscribed with silly jokes so that she could cheer her daughter up.

Ms Tan learnt from a bento-making book she bought in Kyoto more than a year ago how to pack home-cooked cuisine. She prepares the lunch box the night before at about 11.30pm and it usually takes her 25 minutes.

Food she whips up includes sandwiches, fried rice, pasta, omelette and sushi.

"The food is delicious," says Olivia, who enjoys it as much as she enjoys receiving the notes.

However, her older sister Rachel asked Mum to stop the packed lunch for her after about a week.

Rachel, who is in her second year at St Andrew's Junior College, says that her friends were "pretty shocked" when she first brought her lunch box to school because "no one does that in junior college".

But that was not the reason she asked her mother to stop packing for her.

She says: "It was cumbersome to carry around the lunch box in school. The food got soggy after a while too and sometimes I just forgot about it. I didn't want to waste food."

Other than that, she thinks that packing lunch is a good idea as home-cooked meals are generally healthier than canteen food.

She adds that while her mother's cooking is nothing fancy, such as pasta and cakes, the food tastes really good.

Mrs Raghavan also emphasises the benefits of hygiene and nutrition when it comes to home-cooked goodness, adding that "you feel safer because you know exactly what goes inside the lunch box".

Her children have become so attached to home-cooked meals that her son, Siddarth, has been cooking and packing lunch for himself in the Netherlands since last August.

She says: "He learnt by watching. It came to him naturally through trial and error. He has sent me pictures of the dishes he cooked and I'm impressed."

This article was first published on April 6, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.