You have the best intentions to eat the cooked chicken in the fridge the next day, but a dinner invitation and the take out menus beckoned instead. Now you wonder if you've waited too long, and whether your leftover chicken is still safe to eat.
Whole cooked chicken or cut-up chicken parts should be eaten within 1 to 2 days. Patties or nuggets can last up to 4 days.
You shouldn't eat any leftovers that have been sitting around longer than 7 days. Chicken should be consumed even sooner — within 1 to 4 days, depending on the preparation. Leftover chicken nuggets or patties stay safe to eat longer than a whole roast chicken, or roast chicken pieces.
Cooked Chicken in the Fridge
Rotisserie chicken, or other prepared chicken you pick up at the store, or at a local restaurant, must be hot when you get it. Eat it within 2 hours. If you don't get to it, chop it up into several pieces, and refrigerate it covered, in shallow containers, advises the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This allows the chicken's temperature to reduce quickly, and slow the growth of pathogens that can make you sick with foodborne illness.
Eat this chicken within 3 to 4 days. If you reheat it, bring it up to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, or just eat it cold from the fridge. The same guidelines are true for take-out fried chicken, or fried chicken you diligently make at home.
Chicken salad you purchase or make from scratch is safe to eat for about 3 to 4 days. A stew, casserole or soup made with chicken is also OK for that long. Eating cold chicken nuggets or patties is also safe, as long as they have been in the fridge for 4 days or less.
An open package of sliced chicken luncheon meat is safe for sandwich making for 3 to 5 days. Signs that the deli meat is "off" are a slimy texture or off smell.
Freeze Your Leftovers
If your chicken has been sitting in the fridge, and you know you're not going to eat it in 3 to 4 days, freeze it to make it last longer. But, as explained by State Food Safety, freezing stops bacterial growth, but doesn't reverse it.
As soon as you remove the leftover chicken from the freezer, the process of bacterial growth resumes. For example, if you freeze leftover chicken after it's spent 2 days in the fridge, it's only good for another 1 to 2 days in the fridge.
The organization explains that frozen food is good indefinitely, but your leftover chicken may acquire some freezer burn, and degradation of flavor and texture, if left frozen for longer than six months, and sometimes in as little as 2 months. Soups and stews can also be frozen, but chicken salad does not freeze well.
As always, if your food doesn't taste right or smells suspicious, throw it out, regardless of how long it's been sitting in the refrigerator or freezer. Getting in the habit of labeling your leftovers with a date makes it easy to determine if your chicken needs to be trashed.
If you don't remember how old your leftover chicken is, it's better to be safe rather than sorry. Foodborne illnesses can cause mild digestive discomfort, a day or two of nausea and vomiting or serious complications, including hospitalization or even death in vulnerable populations.