That might be a problem, given that supply chain issues have put the U.S. on the verge of wide-scale meat shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic—making many of us carnivores more inclined than ever to stock up and try to stretch out our supplies as long as possible. But how long does meat last in the fridge, anyways? If anyone knew the answer, it would be food safety expert Jeff Nelken. Here, he gives the verdict for chicken, beef, and fish.
First, some general precautions when for buying and storing meat
Before getting into the lifespan of meat, Nelken says there are some important tips to keep in mind to ensure you are, in fact, handling your meat properly. "First, grocery stores have a tendency to overpack meat cases and what you don't want is for warm air to be hitting your meat; it needs to be kept in a temperature of 40°F or lower," he says. Because of this, his advice is to dig deep for your meat instead of grabbing what's on top. Then, you want to go straight home after grocery shopping, so again, it minimizes the amount of warm air hitting it. Good thing there's nowhere to go, right?
If you're storing your meat or fish in the fridge instead of the freezer (because you plan on eating it soon), Nelken says to store it in the interior of the fridge, where it's coldest, and not the door. "The fridge should be 40°F or lower and often fridges are between 45°F to 50°F, so it's a good idea to have a little thermometer in there to make sure it's cold enough," he says.
Okay, so how long does meat last in the refrigerator?
If you bought a surplus of meat with the intention of storing the bulk of it in the freezer, Nelken says it will be safe in there for a while—four months in fact. Ditto for fish. (This timeline is backed up the United States Department of Agriculture.) If you're freezing meat or fish that's precooked, it's okay in the freezer for two to three months.
However, raw meat has a much tighter turnaround time in the fridge. "With raw chicken, beef, or fish in the fridge, you have between three and four days," he says, adding that meat and fish always comes with an expiration date printed on the label, so that's important to note. This is slightly more generous than the official recommendations from the USDA, which advocates one to two days for beef, chicken, and fish.
"In general, it's best to go by how the meat or fish looks, smells, and feels to tell if it's still good or not," Nelken says. "If it has a slimy texture, has changes in color, or a new odor coming from it, then it's not good anymore. These are all signs that bacteria is starting to form."
If you're storing pre-cooked beef, chicken, or fish, you're giving yourself a few extra days. Both Nelken and the official USDA guidelines say it's good for three to four days once cooked. But again, Nelken says it's best to note any changes in color, texture, or odor as the best way to be sure.
The big takeaway here is that meat and fish truly don't last very long in the fridge, so it's important to meal prep to make sure you use it before it goes bad. Or, keep it in your freezer, which will give you months of time.
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