How to Determine How Long Chicken Will Keep in a Refrigerator

By Andrea Lott Haney

The dates printed on a package of chicken won't tell you its exact expiration date once you get it home and into the refrigerator. Since some microbes that can cause illness don't change the appearance or odor of food, you can't rely on a foul smell to tell you that chicken has gone bad. Instead, use food-safety principles to cook chicken when it's freshest and safest for your family.

young woman shopping in supermarket
credit: Hongqi Zhang/iStock/Getty Images
Young woman holding a package of chicken in a grocery store.

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Refrigerator Temperature

Keep your refrigerator below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. To verify your refrigerator's internal temperature, buy a thermometer made specifically for refrigerators. Store raw chicken in the coldest part of the refrigerator -- usually the back of the bottom shelf or in the meat drawer, if your refrigerator has one -- and decrease the storage time if you can't guarantee that it's being kept under 40 F.

Package Dates

Package dates indicate the date by which the chicken should be sold and leave the store. Buy chicken before this date for storage in your home refrigerator. Always cook or freeze the chicken within two days of bringing it home, regardless of what the package date tells you. Never store raw chicken in the refrigerator at home for longer than two days. In the store, commercial refrigerators keep the chicken colder than your fridge does, and putting it in your cart and transporting it home raises its temperature, allowing some bacterial growth.

Cooked Chicken

You can keep cooked chicken in the refrigerator for up to four days. Wrap the cooked chicken in plastic wrap or place it in an airtight container. Put it in the refrigerator as quickly as possible after it cools to room temperature. Ideally, you should store it at the back of the middle shelf in your refrigerator. You can also store multi-ingredient dishes containing cooked chicken, such as chicken salad or chicken casserole, for up to four days.

Tips and Warnings

Don't trust your senses to tell you when chicken is safe to eat since many microbes are odorless, tasteless and can't be seen. However, you should immediately discard any chicken that has a foul odor or visible discoloration, even if it's within two days of bringing it home from the store. Some grocery stores refund the price of potentially contaminated food if you return it shortly after purchase. Don't try to rinse or wash chicken you think might be bad. That only contaminates your sink and kitchen surfaces without appreciably reducing the microbes on the chicken.