How Long Does Deli Meat Last?

It’s tempting to stock up on deli meat when there’s a good sale or to buy a few weeks’ worth of food at a time to limit trips to the grocery store.

Of course, you can only eat so many sandwiches at a time. So if you ever considered buying lunch meat in bulk, the question “does deli meat go bad?” probably popped in your head immediately.

Or maybe you have opened prepackaged salami or ham cold cuts and wondered how long will the leftovers last in your fridge? Or if freezing those makes sense.

In either case, it’s time to learn a thing or two about all the meats that are sliced at the deli counter or prepackaged. In this article, we talk about storage, shelf life, and going bad of lunch meat.

Deli Case
Image used under Creative Commons from Rajiv Patel (Rajiv’s View)

How To Store Deli Meat

While there are quite a lot of types of deli meat, much of their characteristics are quite similar. And the way you store such meats is pretty much the same for all of them.

As you already know, cold cuts are always sold refrigerated and that’s how you should store them. No matter if it’s ham, bacon, pepperoni, or pretty much any other deli meat, the fridge is where you should keep it.

No matter if your lunch meat was prepackaged or you got it sliced at the deli counter, you should keep it well-wrapped at all times.

Prepackaged cold cuts often are resealable, and if that’s the case, feel free to leave the leftovers in the original package. If you can’t seal the package, put the whole thing (or just the slices) in a freezer bag. That will prevent the cold cuts from drying out. Remember to squeeze the air before sealing.

Exactly the same thing applies for lunch meat sliced at the deli.

Can You Freeze Deli Meat?

If you have more lunch meat that you can handle, freezing is the way to go. And since it takes no time at all, there are really no excuses for not doing it.

The most important thing when it comes to freezing cold cuts it to prevent freezer burn.

To do that, you need to wrap the meat tightly. You can go with my favorite, that is freezer bags, but some heavy-duty aluminum foil or plastic wrap should do quite well too. If you’re going with plastic wrap, wrap the whole thing twice.

Before you wrap the package, it’s time to decide what’s in the package.

If it’s the prepackaged variety and it’s unopened, you can put the whole thing in a freezer bag and put it into the freezer.

If the package is opened, you can either transfer only the meat to the freezer bag or put it there in the container. The latter takes more freezer space, but it’s usually more convenient just to take the package from the bag and let it thaw in the fridge.

If you need only a few slices at a time, you can separate all the slices into sandwich-sized piles, and put each one in a freezer bag, and then all bags in an airtight container. This will make grabbing just the right amount of deli meat a breeze.

Vacuum-sealed deli meat on display
(credit: Thomas Vogel)

Please note that when it comes to freezing, all deli meats aren’t made equal.

Some, especially those with more fat and lower moisture content like salami or pepperoni freeze very well. Others are not so great, but usually still good enough for your lunch sandwich.


I you’re assembling an antipasto platter, think twice before putting there thawed cold cuts of chicken or turkey.

When it comes to defrosting deli meat, the fridge is the best option.

How Long Does Deli Meat Last?

There are definitely too many types of deli meat to cover them all in here. Plus even the same type made by another producer often has a different shelf life. So here we’re going to talk about all of them in general.

While the shelf life of prepackaged lunch meat is different for various types, the package usually comes with a sell-by date. And while the meat usually lasts a few days longer, don’t expect miracles.

Once you open the sealed package, the cold cuts retain freshness for 3 up to 7 days. Obviously, it all depends on the type of meat and how you store it. Ones with less moisture, such as pepperoni or salami, tend to last longer than ham or chicken.

When it comes to meat sliced at the deli counter, it usually lasts between 2 to 5 days. Again, that time depends on the type of meat and how well you stored it.


If you need to keep the lunch meat for an extended period, freeze it.

Prepackaged deli meat (unopened)Sell-by + 3 – 5 days
Prepackaged deli meat (opened)3 – 5 days
Lunch meat sliced at the deli counter2 – 5 days

Please note that the periods above are only estimates.

Bread with deli meat and cheese
Bread with deli meat and cheese

How To Tell If Deli Meat Has Gone Bad

There are a few ways to tell if deli meat has started to spoil.

The first sign is that the typically wet surface of the meat will become slimy. This is most often caused by the brine slowly seeping out of the meat, and congealing. While this is ultimately harmless, a slimy surface can also be caused by bacteria or yeast growth. Because of that, you generally shouldn’t eat lunch meat that’s slimy.

One way to salvage that deli meat my mom likes to use is to add such meat to scrambled eggs. At the very least it is cooked through before it reaches the plate. Do it at your own risk, though.

A stale or sour smell will also develop with spoiled deli meat, although not necessarily right away. So if it’s not one of the long-lasting meats like salami or pepperoni, it’s better to err on the side of caution and throw the meat out if it was opened in the fridge for more than five days.

Discoloration is another indicator of spoilage.

Higher fat content deli meat that has started to spoil, like salami or bologna, will begin graying or browning around the edges. This discoloration will spread to the middle of the meat and is a clear sign that the meat has spoiled.

Any mold spots also indicate that deli meat is past its prime, and in any of these cases, you should throw it out.

Deli Meat Shelf Life and Spoilage Summary

I hope you liked this short guide to deli meat. Here’s what you should remember after reading this article:

  • How long does deli meat last? Prepackaged deli meat keeps for up to a couple of days past the printed date, and between 3 to 5 days after opening. The better quality of the meat, the longer it usually lasts. For lunch meat sliced at the deli counter, it retains quality for 3 to 5 days in the fridge, again, depending on the quality.

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