How Long Does Cooked Chicken Last in the Fridge?

Is your leftover chicken still okay to eat? Here's what to know, including signs that cooked chicken has gone bad, how to store chicken, and more.

Small bits of cooked chicken removed from bone and without skin
Sally Vargas

Do you have a black hole in the fridge? A vortex that hides leftovers and then makes them reappear just when you have doubts about how safe they are to eat?

If you eat a lot of chicken, then that vortex has probably claimed more than a few potential meals. It happens. Here’s the rule of thumb so you can play it safe.

When Is Chicken Still Safe to Eat?

According to the USDA, you should eat cooked chicken within 3 to 4 days. Pretty simple.

What if it’s been longer—say, 5 days? Then it’s up to you. There are pathogens that can grow on chicken that don’t have a taste or smell and won’t change the way the chicken looks. Use your best judgement.

As the adage goes: “When in doubt, throw it out.”

There are exceptions to this 3 to 4 day rule, including chicken salad (5 days), chicken hot dogs (2 weeks unopened, 1 week after opening), and packaged chicken lunch meat (2 weeks unopened, 3 to 5 days after opening), and deli chicken lunchmeat (3 to 5 days).

How Do I Know When Cooked Chicken Has Gone Bad?

Any change in the way it looks, tastes, or smells is suspect. This includes an unpleasant smell, an off taste, or a slimy or slippery feel. Mold, of course, means pitch it. Again, when in doubt, throw it out.

How to Store Leftover Chicken

Move cooked chicken to the fridge within 2 hours of cooking it to prevent harmful bacteria from growing. A clean, airtight container is a good choice, as is a heavy-duty zip-top bag. Make sure the container is sealed tight and stash it in the fridge.

How to Use Up Cooked Chicken

Throwing leftovers away is a bummer. Here are some low-effort ways to avoid chucking what might be perfectly good food. The only key is getting around to it before it’s suspect.

  • Freeze it. Pop that chicken in the freezer before it gets to the borderline zone. According to the USDA, you can freeze cooked chicken for up to a year, depending on the item. We’d say use anything within a few months to prevent freezer burn. Freezer-burned food is safe to eat, but it doesn’t taste very good. You can always make a batch of chicken stock to clear out a cache of frozen chicken, particularly if you’re freezing bone-in chicken. 
  • Make chicken salad. And preferably eat it that day, or the day after.
  • Toss that chicken with some pasta for a quick dinner.
  • Tuck it into a quesadilla for an easy lunch.
  • Shred it and simmer it in a speedy soup.