Lunch meat is a go to for so many families. It provides an easy way to make sandwiches more interesting and filling. In fact, many of us end up eating lunch meat five or more times per week; it’s just that useful
With grocery bills continuing to creep higher, it’s more important than ever to find ways to cut your costs. Part of doing so is making sure you use your food well, rather than being forced to throw it away because it has gone off. So, how long is lunch meat good for?
The simple answer is also an obvious one – it depends. There are plenty of lunch meat types that you can use. Most of these have a pretty short shelf life, but a few last much longer. How you store your lunch meat makes a big difference too.
Also remember that a sandwich with just lunch meat isn’t that healthy. The best sandwiches also contain plenty of vegetables. These provide many crucial nutrients and make your meal more interesting as well.
How Long Does Lunch Meat Last?
When It’s Still In The Package
Prepackaged deli meat has a decent shelf life, often lasting seven to 10 days. Some products last even longer than this, especially if they’ve been vacuum sealed, are cured, or are heavily processed.
For example, an unopened package of salami may last a month or two, while an uncut whole salami lasts almost indefinitely in the fridge. Unopened bologna is decent too, often lasting several months in the fridge.
The best by date on the meat is a good indication of how long it will last. However, such dates are always highly conservative. The meat should last for at least a few days after this (perhaps much longer in the case of salami and bologna).
Once You’ve Opened The Package
The clock starts once you open your package of lunch meat. Most of the time, you have between three and five days to eat it.
There are exceptions though. For example, salami lasts around two or three weeks once it’s been opened because it has been cured. Prosciutto is even more impressive, often lasting two months after opening (due to the high salt content).
Then there’s bologna. This is more processed than other types of lunch meat, so it often lasts a week or even two after opening.
Sliced Deli Meat
Freshly sliced meat from the deli is roughly the same as a package of lunch meat that you’ve just opened. You’ve got somewhere between three and five days to get through it.
This is one reason to be cautious with how much meat you buy.
What Do The Dates On Lunch Meat Mean?
Part of the confusion with lunch meat (and food safety in general) is that there are multiple types of dates that might be on your product.
The ‘use by’ date is when you should eat the product. Consuming it more than a few days after the use by date could easily make you sick, although the exact window varies depending on the type of product.
The ‘best by’ date is more of a suggestion. Your food will taste best if you consume it by this date, but you certainly don’t need to.
The ‘sell by’ date is different again. This is simply the date that stores need to sell their products by. You have a decent window after this point to actually consume the meat.
Deli lunch meat will typically have a ‘sell by’ date, while prepackaged meat is more likely to have a ‘use by’ date instead.
How Long Can Lunch Meat Sit Out?
While lunch meat should be stored in the fridge, it can sit out for short periods at a time. This is why you can have a charcuterie board at a picnic or a party and how sandwiches survive in lunch boxes.
Most of the time, the meat shouldn’t be out for more than two hours. You’ll need to be more cautious if it’s hot out. For days that are 90˚F or above, your meat should go back in the fridge after no more than an hour.
These times don’t just apply to open packets of meat either. Even those that are sealed shouldn’t be out of the fridge for more than two hours.
What About Salami?
Salami and other cured meats are often kept out of the fridge. Indeed, such meats can be kept at room temperature for a few days (or even a few weeks) without any problems.
However, that’s only true for whole salami rolls. Once the salami is cut into slices, bacteria can enter and you need to be more cautious.
If you have an open package of salami, then you’ll need to treat it just like other types of meat – no more than two hours at room temperature and one hour if it’s hot.
Sliced salami that’s still in a sealed package may be okay for a day at room temperature. This makes it useful for picnicking, as you can simply open the package of salami when it’s time to eat.
You’ll still need to keep an eye out for any signs of an issue, like discoloration or changes to the smell.
Bear in mind that these times are only relevant for cured salami. Some salamis are cooked rather than cured and need to be treated like other types of lunch meat.
Some companies do make lunch meat that is designed to be shelf-stable. These can often be kept outside of the fridge for weeks or even months, as long as they’re unopened.
Canned corned beef is a classic example. You can also find shelf stable bologna, salami, and plenty of other products.
Such products are easy to spot, as they’re kept on the shelf of the grocery store, rather than in the refrigerated section. If you’re ordering online instead, look for companies that explicitly state their product can be kept out of the fridge, like Jack’s Mountain Bologna.
Be sure to read the packaging carefully too. This will tell you exactly how long the meat is good for and when it does need to be refrigerated.
Making Lunch Meat Last Longer
To keep lunch meat fresh and safe, you must store it in the fridge. Ideally, you should choose the coldest part of the fridge. This often means putting it towards the back, perhaps in a corner, rather than near the door.
Getting the meat in the fridge as soon as possible helps too. Picking up the last meat last when you’re shopping is one way to do so, as this means that it’s out of the fridge for the least amount of time.
You can also keep the lunch meat next to any frozen items, to help it stay cool.
Once you have it home, the trick is to keep the lunch meat cool as much as possible. So, try not to leave it out for an hour or two while you’re prepping lunch or have it sitting out for the length of a picnic.
Meat that sits out like this won’t last as long as meat that you keep cool.
Freezing Your Lunch Meat
It’s also possible to freeze your lunch meat. Frozen lunch meat retains its quality for a month or two, but is still safe to eat after six months or even longer.
Freezing meat isn’t difficult either. If it’s vacuum sealed already, you can stick it straight in the freezer.
If not, you’ll need to portion the meat into small bags and get as much air out as possible. You could also place wax paper between layers of meat to prevent them sticking together.
While thawed meat often isn’t quite as good as the fresh stuff, it can be surprisingly close. If you thaw it gently, you mightn’t even be able to tell the difference.
How To Tell When The Meat Has Gone Bad
First of all, if you’ve had an open packet of lunch meat or deli meat for more than a week, then it won’t be safe anymore. That’s all there is to it (unless we’re talking about cured meat, of course).
You can also pay attention to the appearance and smell of your meat.
Sliminess is one of the first issues that you’ll notice. This generally happens right before the meat goes bad and this is a release of the brine in meat.
There’ll often be an unexpected smell too. Sometimes this may be sweet, a little like yeast. Other times, the smell may be sour instead. There can be other issues too, such as discoloration or the meat getting hard around the edges.
If you’ve left your meat alone for a while, it might start to develop mold. If this happens, throw it out immediately, as the meat is seriously unsafe.
Change is the single most reliable indication of whether your meat is still good, as the amount of liquid, color, and smell varies from one product to the next. For example, some non-brined meat feels slimy right from the beginning, as there is excess juice in the package. In this case, the sliminess isn’t an issue at all.
How Dangerous Is Spoiled Lunch Meat?
Lunch meat is ideal as a breeding ground for bacteria. That’s why it starts to spoil so quickly.
Eating spoiled lunch meat isn’t a good idea, even if it only smells a little funky. Doing so can lead to food poisoning, giving you symptoms like diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach cramps.
Food poisoning often isn’t serious. It can be uncomfortable, true, but the symptoms tend to pass easily within a couple of days.
However, food poisoning isn’t always mild. Sometimes it can be severe and even life-threatening. People with compromised immune systems, young children, seniors, and pregnant women are all at increased risk.
The potential for serious harm is why it’s so important to be cautious with lunch meat. You may even need to buy small portions at a time to ensure you get through all your meat before it starts to go off.
There’s no single answer for how long lunch meat lasts, as there are so many different types of meat. The way your meat is packaged and how you store it will influence the shelf life as well.
In general though, you’re looking at less than a week for an opened packet of lunch meat. Sometimes you might only get a few days from it.
Keeping the meat refrigerated as much as possible helps with the shelf life. You can also freeze it if you get truly stuck (although freezing can change the texture, particularly for lean meats).
You could also experiment with alternatives to lunch meat, including eggplant slices, cheese, avocado, falafel, or halloumi. After all, lunch meat is often packed with salt and preservatives, so it’s really not that good for you.