The $20 Grocery Challenge: How Many Calories Can You Get?

As a longtime Frugalite, I couldn’t wait to take on the $20 grocery challenge. My experiences as a personal trainer taught me people don’t seem to understand just how far a dollar can be stretched when it comes to grocery shopping on a budget. They have the notion you have to spend hundreds of dollars every week to keep both your pantry and your stomach full.

Such is simply not the case.

To prove it, I decided to see just how many calories I could get out of Walmart with nothing more than a $20 bill.

The rules

I set a number of parameters for myself for this challenge.

For starters, nobody wants to eat the same food non-stop. While I could easily end up with a mountain of calories if I spent $20 on SPAM, there’s no way you would want to eat SPAM for days on end. Many of you won’t even eat it once.

Variety is key, and it was because of this I told myself I would only buy two of each item at most.

Rice and beans are easy go-to foods. Everybody already knows about them. As a result, I was only allowed to buy one bag of each of these.

One can of meat – it didn’t matter which type – needed to be added to the haul, too. The average American eats a lot of meat on a daily basis as it is, so this seemed important to include.

The food I bought also had to be relatively healthy. I didn’t want to walk out of there with bags full of junk food. While you may not care about long-term health during a financial hardship – and while junk food is typically calorie-dense – I felt this was cheating.

Nope, the goal was to walk out of there with a reasonably healthy, varied diet that could be eaten for a number of days without missing out on vital nutrients or falling into ‘food boredom.’

I also aimed to make purchases that would not spoil quickly. Applied long-term, if you squeeze in an extra item or two each shopping trip to put away, you could have a nice stockpile to fall back on the next time things get rough.

Which foods did I pick for the $20 grocery challenge?

Here’s how I fared…

Beef Flavor Ramen Noodles (12-pack)

Who hasn’t subsisted off of ramen noodles as they first struck out on their own? There’s a massive number of calories in these, they’re somewhat filling, and they last quite a long time. Most certainly not the healthiest of foods (lots of salt), but spending all of $2.38 for 4,560 calories was hard to pass up.

Long-grain Enriched Rice (2 pounds)

The low-hanging fruit, right? Of course, I picked up a bag of rice! It stores forever, provides good nutrition, and is cheap. Another great thing about rice is that will take on flavors very well, and can therefore be made thousands of ways. Here are a few of our favorite ways to serve it. For two pounds, I paid $1.26 and ended up getting 3,200 calories. That’s fantastic!

Dried Pinto Beans (2 pounds)

Dietary fiber is vital, and all too many people are lacking in it. I headed for the dried beans to make sure this $20 was giving me as much of what was needed as possible (and to get some extra protein in the bag). These can be served with the rice, or made into a variety of other inexpensive meals. Check out this article for another great bean recipe.

I really wanted lentils – they were much cheaper – but the grocery store was picked clean. Frankly, there weren’t near as many options available as there were last year. Of anything. Nevertheless, with this 2-pound bag of beans, I was able to get 2,600 calories for $1.48. Not bad.

Great Value Dried Rotini (2 boxes)

We eat a lot of pasta at my house. It’s cheap and easy enough to make even that I can’t mess it up. I particularly like rotini because of the way it holds the sauce. I picked up two boxes of this filling food for a total of $1.56. It netted me 3,200 calories.

For an even deeper dive into frugality, you could make your own pasta for pennies on the dollar. Here’s how.

Campbell’s Chunky Baked Potato with Steak and Cheese Soup (2 cans)

I like beans, rice, and pasta, but I wanted to add something ‘instant’ to my food prep challenge as well. Canned stew was the ticket. I’m a huge Dinty Moore fan, but seeing Walmart was sold out of that (and most other stews), I opted for this instead.

Two cans of potato, steak, and cheese soup cost me $3.56 and gave me 860 calories. So, this was an item with a heftier price tag for what I got, but it helped add variety, speed, and convenience to the mix.

Campbell’s Chunky New England Clam Chowder (2 cans)

Right beside the potato soup was clam chowder. I’m a sucker for clam chowder (New England style, of course).

Two cans of this cost $3.65 once more and gave me 780 calories. Lower calorie than rice and beans, but you can only eat so much rice.

Canned Chicken Chunks

I went into the store knowing that I wanted to add at least one canned meat to the basket. I felt this was only fair, though I knew it would be the hardest part of the grocery challenge and would cost me a pretty portion of my $20 bill. Chicken and tuna were the only options I could see my family eating (sorry, SPAM), and I ended up opting for chicken.

I bought a multi-pack option here for $3.32, and it gave me 480 calories. I can add the chicken to the rice and beans for some pleasant variety and to give the teeth something to chew. I’ve eaten mush on enough backpacking trips to know that eventually, your mouth ends up craving chewiness.

Great Value Canned Peaches in Heavy Syrup (2 cans)

Once more, not as high-calorie of an item as Snickers bars, but I knew the importance of adequate levels of vitamin C in your preps. There’s no need to get scurvy simply because you thought you could live off of soup and beans. I needed some fruit to add to the mix.

Peaches were cheap and, being in heavy syrup, at a higher calorie load than other options. I’m not a fan of heavy syrup typically – high fructose corn syrup will elevate your cholesterol levels – but the rest of my family likes it, and for this challenge, I deemed it to be acceptable.

I ended up paying $2.00 here and getting 700 calories in return.

What were the final $20 Grocery Challenge results?

All in all, I grabbed 16,380 calories for $19.12+tax. This was right under my $20 limit, so I was pretty happy.

Personally, I believe the 2,000 calories/day limit is too low for the average individual to live off of, regardless of what those alphabet agencies will tell you. I think 2,500 calories is a much more feasible number. If I stick to my 2,500 calories/day mindset here, this means my 16,380 calories will give me 6.5 days of food for one person.

Not bad!

A week’s worth of relatively healthy shelf-stable food for all of $20? I’ll take it!

Try the $20 Grocery Challenge and report back.

What about you, though? How many calories can you net with $20 at Walmart, while still taking into account the special needs, likes, and dislikes of your family? Take the $20 grocery challenge and let us know your results in the comment section below!

The $20 Grocery Challenge: How Many Calories Can You Get?

8 thoughts on “The $20 Grocery Challenge: How Many Calories Can You Get?”

  1. I’d swap out one of those cans of chunky soup for a dozen eggs. Eight bananas as a swap for one of those cans of peaches in syrup.

    1. He got a lot of calories but what was he going to eat? Plain pasta? What was he going to mix in with the rice and beans. A real grocery challenge you need to cook meals and eat them for a week. I’ve seen really good grocery challenges on YouTube where they spend $20 and make 7 breakfasts, lunches and dinners for 1 for the week.

      1. Frugal Fit Mom has a number of videos where she feeds her family of six on a certain amounts, and shows the meals she makes, too. They’re pretty utilitarian, but if you’re on a budget they’re a godsend.

  2. Well done!!
    I ve nit given any thought to the actual calorie count before. Great idea!!
    I ve always had extra food on hand n started prepping a few years ago. I ve been telling people for years to just get an extra $5 worth of staples to build up a better supply. Thats pretty easy to do.
    The canned soups n peaches are missing from my storage, but wont be for long. I like your thinking here.
    Thank you for all that you do n for coming up with so many creative thoughtful ideas n for sharing.

  3. Walmart also sells canned ham chunks (not Spam). They come in a can that is the same size as a tuna can for $1.00 each. You can throw the ham chunks and a some peas & carrots (canned or frozen) into macaroni and cheese for less than $3.00/meal for 4 or 5.
    I’ll post a photo of the can on Daisy’s FB post about this article.

  4. I would not have choosen the soup or stews. I would have swapped in some eggs and a cheap loaf of bread. Bread and gravy is very filling. In stead of the syrup packed peaches I’d have gone with Pineapple in it’s own juice. Using that juice over some fried rice (sweet and sour). I also notice the pasta was plain. Find a way to add a cheap jar of sauce.
    I went on line and did an imaginary shopping trip just for this and came away with a bill of $20.89. Had I been in the store I might have done better as I tend to head for the mark down section first. I tend to keep stocked up on the basics when they go on sale, and that’s where I do most of my “Money is tight” shopping trips. Saves on gas too.

  5. Do you have a list of the meals you prepared with those foods? Also, was that food/meals just for one person? Great idea on calorie counting!!

  6. Probably would have swapped the canned soup for a bag of flour – that gives me bread for a while – and swapped the peaches for some seasonal fruit. Agreed with eggs. They aren’t as high calorie as some of the items but are massively useful. Plus my local store often has a dozen for $1.50 or less.

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