Here's How Long You Have To Eat An Open Container Of Deli Meat

There are only so many days in a row that a person can eat the same sandwich, meaning that open deli meat container can really make itself at home in your fridge. But, when the clock is ticking on that leftover sliced turkey or ham, it's hard to know if it's safe to let it languish.

Thankfully, the official guidance is pretty clear. According to the USDA, open containers of cold cuts can stay in the fridge for three to five days. After that point, you'll want to scrap the slices and buy a fresh package. Better yet, buy an extra package to keep in the freezer, since you can safely freeze unopened deli meat for as long as you need to.

Why the urgency? Cold cuts, though delicious, can grow Listeria. And unfortunately, while refrigeration can slow the growth of the bacteria, it doesn't totally kill it. Only heating, curing, and fermenting foods will do so, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even then, you can still get sick from a perfectly dried salami if the bacteria gets reintroduced behind the deli counter through a contaminated knife or meat slicer, so cured cuts should be given the same attentiveness and deli meat.

Keep a close eye on your deli meat

To maximize the safe-to-eat window of your deli meat, once you get home, store any cold cuts in the back of your fridge where it's coldest, the same as you would with shelf-stable cured meats. This helps keep it at a stable temperature (one that's 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below). If you wait to open a sealed container, try dating the outside of the package to help keep track of how long you've been serving it.

As you work your way through deli slices, it's important to also check for spoilage. Sometimes, it's easy to spot the telltale fuzz of a food gone bad. Other times, it's hard to know from a glance. For example, there's green-hued bacon showing that color doesn't always indicate a food has gone bad.

That being said, when it comes to cold cuts, there are a few smells and textures to look out for to know if it's expired. Of course, first start by checking a package's sell-by date and making sure you're still within the window. Then check for sliminess or stickiness, discoloration (think patches of brown), or a rancid smell. If anything sets off your sensory alarm bells, aim for the trash can. 

Using up leftover cold cuts before they go bad

Heated preparations are a great way to use up extra deli items before they expire. Plus, cooking food to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit helps kill off Listeria. So, why not bake unused lunch meat into your next stuffed bread or calzone for a tasty on-the-go snack.

Or look to brunch, and turn that ham sandwich into a Monte Cristo. For those unfamiliar, the dish is essentially a regular ham and cheese sandwich that's dipped into an egg batter and fried, giving it a French toast exterior and a deli meat interior. If the sweet-savory meal isn't your style, you can also chop up leftover turkey and add it to a batch of freezer-friendly baked egg cups or a hearty breakfast omelet.

At dinner time, take the easy road and toss a few slices of salami or another cured deli meat on top of pizza for a quick solution. If you have time to spare, cook up extra sliced ham in chicken cordon bleu. The vintage dish is a winner among kids and adults alike, which wraps thinly-pounded chicken cutlets around slices of ham and cheese before breading and baking.