Chicken is undoubtedly the star of many home-cooked meals. But when you have leftover chicken—breasts, drumsticks, thighs—do you ask yourself, anxiously, "How long do I have before I’ll have to throw the remainders of this beautiful meal out?" Read on to learn safe storage tips for cooked chicken and how you can incorporate leftover chicken into easy, next-day meals and snacks.
How long does cooked chicken last in the fridge?
How long cooked chicken can last in your fridge depends on how it was processed and prepared. FoodSafety.gov, a federal consumer resource on food safety, suggests that chicken salad, chicken nuggets and patties, and leftover cooked (roasted, sautéed, fried) chicken can last in your fridge between three and four days. Fully cooked chicken sausage and lunch meat can last up to one week because they contain higher levels of sodium, so the salt preserves such products for a little longer.
How to store cooked chicken in the fridge
How you store cooked chicken is key to ensuring that it is still good to eat within a three- to four-day window. First and foremost, you want to ensure that leftover chicken is stowed away in the fridge within two hours of cooking. Bacteria can multiply quickly when the meat’s temperature lingers in the "Danger Zone," which is between 40°F (4°C) and 140°F (60°C).
Placing your cooked chicken in a clean and dry, airtight container or sealing it in an unused, food-grade plastic bag will help retain the meat’s freshness and quality. Labeling your packed cooked chicken with the date it went into the fridge will help you keep track of how many days you have left to enjoy it.
How to tell if refrigerated cooked chicken is still safe to eat
While cooked chicken may last in the fridge between three and four days, it’s possible it may go bad earlier. Look for these signs to judge whether it’s time to toss that chicken.
You can tell that cooked chicken meat is spoiled when the color has gone gray or green. You may also notice grayish-green mold on the surface of the meat, indicating spoilage.
It may be hard to tell if the chicken meat has gone bad if it was marinated or made with herbs, spices or sauces. Sometimes, spoiled chicken meat may not give any hints of spoilage. It may look, smell and taste the same. Your best bet is to use the three- to four-day timeline as your guide. Still, spoiled cooked chicken gives off a foul, acidic odor that is hard to miss if you give it a good sniff.
Spoiled cooked chicken may look slimy. Unfortunately, rinsing or reheating the cooked chicken does not necessarily kill the bacteria or destroy toxins. Instead, washing it may increase contamination of other foods and utensils, leading to an increased risk of food poisoning. If it’s slimy, slide it in the bin.
What happens if I eat cooked chicken that has gone bad?
Don’t panic if you have eaten chicken that has gone bad or passed the three- to four-day mark. You may be just fine. Nevertheless, identifying and discarding any spoiled cooked chicken in your fridge is definitely a good idea.
Like raw chicken meat, cooked chicken can cause foodborne illness (aka food poisoning), especially in the young, the elderly, those who are pregnant and those with a compromised immune system. Some unpleasant symptoms of food poisoning could range from nausea, chills, vomiting and diarrhea to dehydration and bloody stools. See a doctor if any of these symptoms persist for more than 12 to 24 hours.
How to use up leftover cooked chicken
There are many ways to use up your cooked chicken for a quick meal or snack:
Store your cooked chicken in the refrigerator within two hours of cooking it, and make sure to have a plan in place for using it up within three to four days. Running out of ideas for using cooked or leftover chicken? Browse our collection of Healthy Chicken Recipes for inspiration.