“Lunch meat” is a pretty broad category, encompassing different types of meat, poultry and blends, as well as all sorts of different preparations. Also referred to by terms such as “cold cuts,” “deli meat,” “luncheon meat,” “sandwich meat” “lunchmeat” and “sliced meat,” lunch meat is precooked, smoked or cured. The shelf life of lunch meat in the refrigerator varies by type and packaging and depends on several other factors.
Types of Lunch Meat
A few examples of precooked lunch meats include:
- Roast beef
- Corned beef
- Roasted turkey and chicken breast
- Baked ham
- Baked meatloaf
A few examples of smoked lunch meats include:
- Smoked turkey breast
- Smoked ham
- Certain sausages, such as kielbasa, andouille and chorizo
A few examples of cured lunch meats include:
- Serrano and jamon iberico
- Salamis like Genoa, pepperoni and capicola
- Mortadella and bologna
Precooked Lunch Meat Storage and Shelf Life
Precooked deli meats should be stored in an airtight container or zip-lock bag in the refrigerator. Never keep them out at room temperature for longer than two hours (or over one hour if the environmental temperature is 90 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter).
You can eat sandwich meat purchased in factory-sealed packaging up to the marked “use-by” or expiration date. However, once you open the package, use it within seven to 10 days, even if that’s sooner than the use-by or expiration date. If the packaging has a “sell-by date” instead, you can expect the sliced meat to stay good for seven to 10 days from that date, opened or not.
Freshly cut lunch meats – like those you get sliced at the deli counter or buy in a supermarket – have a slightly shorter life span. They typically stay good for about five days, but those made with minimal preservatives may start going downhill at around day three. The shelf life is also affected by how long the packaging on the meat that your cold cuts were sliced from was open and the age of the product.
Smoked Lunch Meat Storage and Shelf Life
Smoked lunch meats are similar to precooked deli meats in terms of handling and shelf life. They too must be kept refrigerated and not held unrefrigerated for longer than two hours (or one hour if it’s over 90 degrees F outside).
When they’re in factory-sealed packaging, smoked luncheon meats last until their indicated expiration or use-by date. But once you’ve opened the package, eat them within seven to 10 days. When freshly sliced at the deli or purchased in a pre-assembled deli meat tray, smoked lunch meats usually last around five days. Note the use-by date on pre-made trays, or eat the meats within three days of a sell-by date.
Cured Lunch Meat Storage and Shelf Life
You can’t generalize about cured meats as easily. Some are shelf stable, meaning they don’t even require refrigeration, while some are only shelf stable until you open the packaging, but many types require refrigeration at all times. Different meats in this category can last from a few weeks to several months.
By law, factory-packaged cured meats must include safe handling instructions and an expiration or use-by date on their labels. If you’re buying unpackaged cured meats from a deli, ask an employee how you should store them and how long you have to consume them.
How to Tell if Lunch Meat Is Bad
It’s not difficult to identify spoiled luncheon meats. A quick “sniff” test generally tells you whether lunch meat is still good. If it has a sour odor or otherwise doesn’t smell as it should, discard it. Also, if it develops moisture or a slimy texture on its surface or if you see any discoloration or mold, toss it. Discoloration often starts around the edges of sliced meat.
Eric Mohrman is a food and drink, lifestyle, and travel writer living in Orlando, Florida. He spent 10 years working front- and back-of-house in restaurants, adding professional experience to his love of eating and cooking. His stories on food and beverage topics have appeared in numerous print and web publications, including Visit Florida, Orlando Style Magazine, CrushBrew Magazine, Agent Magazine, Dollar Stretcher Magazine, The 863 Magazine and others.