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Convenience Foods--Yea or Nay?

Shel Horowitz's Monthly Frugal Fun Tip for January, 2005

A joyous, healthy, and abundant 2005 to you!

Recently, we made a recipe that called for slivered almonds. Lo and behold, slivered almonds are available in the stores--but at $3.50 for six ounces, it didn't seem like a very good idea. Especially since prepared slivered almonds are more likely to have been low-quality to start with, and have been exposed to air long enough that the chance of rancidity is pretty high. You can buy top-quality whole almonds from Trader Joe's ("World's Largest Roasted Almonds") at $3.99 for a whole pound (they have some cheaper ones, but these taste terrific and are worth the extra 50 cents). It takes under 30 seconds and probably 2 cents worth of electricity to sliver your own almonds in a food processor.

On the other hand, if we needed a large quantity of shelled pistachios or sunflower seeds, the labor involved in shelling our own is significant. Better to spend a couple of bucks extra and save half an hour. Fresh coconuts are a total pain to deal with; its easy to buy shredded unsweetened organic coconut if you're planning to bake with it.

It' a matter of making informed choices. It's ridiculous to buy those little packages with a few crackers, a couple of squares each of cheese and meat; the price per pound is far out of proportion to the real value, and so is the amount of packaging involved. But it's wonderful, as my daugh ter runs out to school in the morning, that she can grab a just-add-water packaged soup--especially since we don't pay the $1.50 retail, but get them 4 for a dollar at a local discount store. A high dose of nutrition in a small and easy package (and her diet is low enough in sodium that we don't mind these high-salt soups).

Over the years, we've made our own yogurt, dried tomatoes, and breads, among others--and we know people who make their own tofu, cheese, beer and wine, and sauerkraut. The verdict?

Yogurt is fussy. My failure rate was over 50%. It turns out to be more cost-effective to buy consistent high quality in the supermarket. And not having much success with yogurt, I haven't bothered to try beer, wine, or cheese--all of which are much less forgiving.

Using my neighbors' awesome homegrown organic tomatoes, I've been drying them for years. Mine tend to turn black some times, but they taste better than any store-bought. Only one failure, when I put them away before they got fully dry and they went moldy. Since then, though, I usually store the dried tomatoes in the freezer or pack them in olive oil. I make a few small jars for some of the neighbors, including the ones who give me the tomatoes in the first place.

Our homemade breads are always tasty, but they're inconsistent. It's fun, but it's labor-intensive--so most of our baking is cookies and cakes. We also have access to quite a number of excellent bakeries, and their stuff tastes better than ours.

So what's my point? It's that before you buy a convenience food, you should ask yourself a few questions:

* Is it a good value?

* Are the product ingredients of high quality?

* How much labor would be involved in creating the product from supplies on hand or easily purchased?

* Is this the best place to buy it?

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