Lynn O'Shaughnessy

Growing up in a family of seven posed all sorts of culinary challenges. It was impossible, for instance, to divide a 12-pack of Popsicles evenly, or a cherry pie, without angering somebody. Bruised feelings were also inevitable whenever my mom pulled out the cookie sheets or a Duncan Hines cake mix. After she finished making the batter, the kids fought for the beater, spatula and bowl.

To end these kitchen free-for-alls, I decided to become the cook so I could claim ownership over any leftover cookie dough or icing. I started cooking in grade school and never stopped. In journalism school, my goal was to one day replace Craig Claiborne, the longtime food critic of The New York Times. I abandoned that idea after concluding that if I wrote about cooking for a living, I'd probably stop enjoying it.

What does this have to do with personal finance? Well it's a stretch, but since this is the third anniversary of my column, I thought I'd mix my love of cooking with my love of saving money. With gasoline prices rising, budgets are even tighter, but I see little evidence of people saving money by cooking. Look at any grocery store today and you'll find the expanded freezer sections stuffed with foods like pot roast, french toast, fried chicken and vegetable soup that people used to prepare themselves.

This willingness to spend more and get less is just as evident in the produce section where you can buy fruits and vegetables already sliced. When I was at the grocery store last week, I was amazed to find red potatoes that were already chopped. Who knew people couldn't cut up potatoes themselves?

The potatoes were near other unnecessary items like diced bell peppers and snack-sized packages of celery for lunches. The little package of celery costs $2.29, or about 33 cents an ounce. That might not sound so horrible unless you realize that buying a stalk of celery at that price would cost you more than $5 a pound.

While I was at the store, I paid $1 for a cantaloupe that weighed two pounds, but steps away from the pile of fat cantaloupes, I found precut cantaloupe that would have cost me $6.99 for 20 ounces. I can't help but wonder who buys precut fruit at these prices.

All this convenience comes with a higher price tag - and in the case of frozen entrees - less taste. I found lots of expensive food in the freezer case too, including a two-pound package of frozen pork ribs for $13.59. A few aisles away, the store was having a great sale on fresh pork ribs for just $1 a pound.

Lynn O'Shaughnessy

Lynn O'Shaughnessy is the author of Retirement Bible.

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