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When in Boston, order the frozen lasagna

March 2, 2012: 10:57 AM ET

Can I write this off?

If you've ever been out at a restaurant and have been surprised to see an additional meals tax tacked on to the bill, you are not alone. The Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan research group, just put out a report about the absurdity and complexity (two words never associated with taxes, right?) of some of these local levies.

Among the key findings: Chicago, Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Seattle, Denver and Washington D.C. are among the larger U.S. cities that charge a so-called meals tax in addition to a standard sales tax. New York (woo-hoo!), Los Angeles, Houston, Philadelphia and Phoenix are among the larger cities that do not have a meals tax.

The highest meals taxes are in Virginia Beach, where diners are asked to pay an extra 5.5%! Apparently, Virginia isn't for food lovers. In Denver and the nation's capital, the meals tax is 4%.

The Tax Foundation explains that some cities justify these taxes as "tourism taxes." Others describe them as a "luxury tax", since wealthier people may be more inclined to eat out than buy groceries at home to cook. But The Tax Foundation said that argument is worse than having a fly in one's soup. "One could say that it is a tax on individuals with less flexible schedules or who do not like to cook--rich or poor," the Tax Foundation analysts write.

I'm inclined to agree. Yes, many cities are hungry (heh) for more revenue. But are these types of taxes the answer, especially since so many of them are really quite inane? The Tax Foundation cites some amusing examples from the Massachusetts Department of Revenue. Apparently, if you buy a pizza and two cans of soda in a restaurant, the pie and drinks are both taxable. But if you buy the same pizza and a 2-liter bottle of soda, the soda (or "pop" for my Midwestern friends and "coke" for y'all down South) is tax-exempt because it was sold in an unopened original container of at least 26 fluid ounces.

And this one is even crazier. Say you're in the North End (wicked awesome!) and you sit down to get some lasagna. That's taxable of course. But if the same Italian restaurant sells you frozen lasagna to go, the Massachusetts Department of Revenue says that you don't have to pay a tax because "these dinners are not considered meals and therefore are not taxable because they require additional preparation."

Wow. A frozen meal is not really a meal. I guess most foodies already knew that. But for the sake of Jon Arbuckle's wallet, I sure hope that Garfield doesn't demand to be served fresh lasagna at restaurants in the Bay State all that often.

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Paul Lamonica
Paul R. La Monica
Assistant Managing Editor, CNNMoney

Paul R. La Monica is an assistant managing editor at CNNMoney. He is the author of the site's daily column, The Buzz, and also tweets throughout the day about the markets and economy @LaMonicaBuzz. La Monica also oversees the site's economic, markets and technology coverage.

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