Or look at food as entertainment in other ways:

  • Make your own. Try something you've never made before, like yogurt or one of those no-knead breads that use only three ingredients. It's entertaining to turn out something so delicious so easily.
  • Batch cooking. Put on your favorite music and team up with your spouse, kids or a good friend to cook and freeze several dishes. Extra frugal points if you use mostly ingredients from the cupboard.
  • No-restaurant challenge. Use your newfound culinary chops to keep away from restaurants and takeout for a week -- or more. Eating out is a subtle sabotager of budgets, especially if it's "debit and forget it."
  • Organize a potluck. If you're afraid your pals will respond with taco chips, supermarket pasta salads and a single rotisserie chicken, create a basic sign-up sheet -- bread, appetizer, casserole/entrée, etc. You have to eat anyway. Why not have friends over and make it a party?

Entertaining at home

It doesn't have to be a full meal, mind you. Kristl Story of The Budget Diet suggests a wine-tasting party to "discover your favorite cheap wine." Pull out whatever plonk you have on hand, and invite friends to do the same. Just make sure no one drives home drunk.

Play around with themes. What about a leap-year party? A bad-TV party? A dessert party? Denver resident Rose Beetem and her friends do creativity parties: They make "junk art" from materials at hand, write poetry (limericks, haiku), read plays aloud, shoot music videos or craft handmade valentines.

She says, "Another perennial favorite is game night" -- classic and modern board games, or old-fashioned charades.

If you don't have any board games, drop by a thrift shop for reduced-price fun. Learn a new card game. Or go with the charades -- which, incidentally, might be more fun to perform and watch after a wine tasting.

The art of the barter

Or how about a trading party? January is the perfect time for a post-holiday gift swap, according to Jon Lal of BeFrugal.com. One person's trash is another person's Valentine's Day present.

These items need not be "bad" gifts per se. For example, a guy I know developed an allergy to fragrances; his wife must now regift any scented candles or bath sets. Or suppose your kid got two copies of the same book or identical Transformer toys?

Clothing swaps are hot, too. Encourage friends who are more or less the same size and/or have similar tastes in accessories. Turn the bathroom and bedroom into try-on areas. If children are involved, provide games or a G-rated video to watch while the grown-ups haggle. Ask attendees to bring snacks and/or drinks to share along with their tradable items.

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Oh, and be sure that everyone gets the guest list -- otherwise, someone might show up with a gift someone else at the party gave him.

Swapping is both frugal and eco-friendly. You get a "new" wardrobe or a book you haven't read, and your guests get to unload boldly patterned scarves they'd never wear while snagging adorable ladybug rain boots for their kids. Nobody spends; everybody wins.

Donna Freedman is a freelance writer in Seattle. You can find more of her writing on MSN Money's Frugal Cool blog and at Surviving and Thriving (motto: "Life is short. But it's also wide.").