SINGAPORE - With a new baby in the house, there is barely time to rest, much less cook. But more mothers are finding relief in an unexpected source - food caterers.
In particular, those that deliver special "confinement meals" to them every day.
Companies offering this service have been getting more customers in recent years, which they say is partly due to the shortage of confinement nannies.
Also, fewer parents live with their grown-up children nowadays, making it harder for them to help out, they say.
Even new players are receiving keen interest from new mums, many of whom have little idea how to prepare confinement food. Such meals are more nutritious and complex than everyday fare, to help mums rebuild their strength after giving birth.
For instance, the food is often infused with traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and herbs.
A month's worth of confinement food usually costs more than $1,000, or about $30 a meal. In contrast, daily delivery of regular meals, also known as "tingkat", can be as cheap as $100 a month for one person's share.
RichFood Catering director Agnes Chai pointed out that most families now hire foreign maids to do the housework.
"The mother primarily needs only for the meals to be settled," explained Ms Chai, whose firm has seen customer numbers jump to 450 last year, more than triple the figure it served in 2008.
People now are also more receptive to the concept, said Mr Kelvin Ong, who heads confinement meal provider Natal Essentials. When he started in 2002, many were sceptical. "Things were so bad, we sometimes had only one customer a month," he said. Now, it handles about 100 orders a month.
Meanwhile, Thomson Confinement Food has seen a "steady increase in orders" despite being in business for barely a year, said Ms Amy Leong, who heads business development at Thomson Medical, which started the initiative last October for its patients.
"Modern mums prefer to spend more time enjoying and bonding with their newborns," said Ms Leong. "In addition, the skills in confinement cooking have not been fully passed down to the younger generation."
Fewer than 10 caterers offer confinement meal delivery.
The confinement period, or "zuo yue zi" in Mandarin, is the first month after delivery. Many mothers would enlist the help of a confinement nanny, to cook and help care for the child.
But such nannies, usually from Malaysia, have been in short supply, said Mr Ong. Their services do not come cheap either, at $2,500 to $3,500 for a month.
Real estate agent Evelyn Neo, 34, baulked at the $4,000 price tag for a confinement nanny in February. In the end, she ordered meals from Natal Essentials for 20 days at a cost of $1,120.
It is not easy to prepare confinement food properly, said clinical dietitian Jaclyn Reutens, who is involved in the new confinement meal provider YeYeah Delights' set-up. Food for the first week, for example, must be easily digestible to aid detoxification.
While confinement meal providers expect business to rise in the coming years, they admit that a labour shortage as well as rising food and operating costs are hurdles. But they can look forward to support from mothers such as lecturer Charlene Wee.
"I could focus on nursing my premature son, who had to be fed every few hours," said Madam Wee, 34, who ordered from Thomson Confinement Food after giving birth to her second son last December. "It would have been too much pressure otherwise. I had to care for the older child too."
Choosing the right menu
Meals should preferably comprise a wide variety of food, and with traditional offerings such as braised pig's trotters with black vinegar. It is also good to have higher-quality fish such as threadfin.
Mothers should generally eat only green vegetables during the confinement period.
Food should come in smart packaging that requires no washing and is sealed properly to prevent contamination during the delivery process.
Check if the caterer delivers to your location before going ahead. Make sure to inform them about any food allergies.
Order early. Most of the companies offer early-bird discounts for advance orders.
Sources: Yeyeah Delights, Evelyn Neo
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.