How to Keep Lunch Meat

Summer sandwich with ham, cheese, salad and tomatoes, onion, juice

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Packaged lunch meat stays fresh for between three and five days in a refrigerator once it is opened, according to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. Appropriate storage is essential to the taste, shelf life and safety of chilled, cooked meats, and lunch meat must be kept cool at all times, including during the journey home from the grocery store. Buy perishable items last and transport them home in a cooler or with an ice pack to keep your meat at a safe temperature, and transfer it to a refrigerator immediately.

Buy Fresh Cuts

Never buy meat that is past its expiration date. Select your lunch meat carefully and buy the freshest cuts with the longest best-before or use-by date so that the meat stays fresh for longer when you get it home. If you buy prepacked lunch meat, check the packaging isn’t damaged or open; once the seal is broken, the meat begins to deteriorate, even in the refrigerator.

Keep It Cool

Never store lunch meat out on the countertop or in a kitchen cupboard at room temperature. The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends storing perishable food items such as chilled meats at 40 degrees Fahrenheit in a refrigerator to reduce the risk of bacterial growth that can cause food poisoning.

Store the Meat Safely

Wrap lunch meat to prevent it from drying out and to reduce the possibility of contamination and odor absorption from other foods. If the meat is not prepacked, keep it in a lidded, airtight plastic container or sealed zip-lock bag to maintain freshness. Never store cooked and raw meat in the same container, and once the packaging is open, consume the lunch meat within three to five days or before the expiration date, whichever is earliest. It is safe to freeze lunch meat for one to two months, according to the USDA. Defrost the meat in a refrigerator before use and do not refreeze.

The Two-Hour Rule

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and USDA advise consumers to refrigerate perishable food such as lunch meat within two hours of purchase to prevent the growth of bacteria and foodborne illnesses. If the room or outdoor temperature exceeds 90 degrees, refrigerate food within an hour.