When to hang on to frozen food & when to toss it


Woman holding frozen food

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You’re staring into the freezer at a foil-wrapped hunk of meat, and there’s just no telling what it is. How long has that been in there? Is it still safe to eat?

Well, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food frozen at zero degrees will always be safe — it’s the quality that can decrease over time.

There are a few things you can do to prolong the life of your frozen foods. It’s best to freeze food items soon after bringing them home from the store. When you store food in the refrigerator for a while, then freeze it toward the end of its lifespan, it will not taste as good as if it had been frozen at the peak of its freshness.

In addition, while it’s fine to leave meat and poultry in its store packaging for freezing, wrapping it in plastic wrap or a zip-close bag will help protect its quality and prevent freezer burn. Freezer burn occurs when food comes in contact with air. While it does not harm the food, freezer burn will make it dry in some spots. If a food item becomes heavily freezer burned, you may want to discard it because it won’t taste as good.

All in all, foods can be frozen for extended periods of time without affecting their safety. You can check for freshness after they are thawed by how they smell. If the item smells “off,” discard it.

The USDA has a handy chart that shows how long certain foods can be frozen and still maintain their original quality. Here are some examples, or visit FSIS.usda.gov for the complete list.

  • Uncooked steaks, roasts or chops: Four to 12 months
  • Uncooked ground meat: Three to four months
  • Uncooked poultry parts (such as chicken breasts): Nine months
  • Frozen dinners: Three to four months


Now that you feel comfortable eating the frozen mystery meat sitting in your freezer, make sure you know how to safety thaw it.