How quickly must non-frozen ready-to-eat foods be consumed?

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With most homes across developed countries (America, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia) heavily reliant on ready to eat meals, it’s not a surprise that 51.02% of every household shopping is made up of non-frozen ready to eat food items that usually have a short shelf life compared to dry food stored in a pantry.

The question most consumers often have is how quickly must non-frozen ready-to-eat foods be consumed?

As a general rule, most non-frozen ready-to-eat foods must be consumed within 7-10 days or they will go bad or become unsafe to consume. When prepared and stored for more than 24 hours, refrigerated, ready-to-eat meals can potentially be a source of a variety of hazardous food contaminations.

In general, all ready-to-eat non-frozen food establishments must label and mark the date of preparation and must be discarded if not consumed within 7 calendar days of preparation.

When it comes to ready-to-eat non-frozen food safety, there is no concrete answer that can be given since it varies from food to food.

However, most RTE products do have a more limited lifespan than dry goods and this is why you will see ‘Use By Dates’ on them whereas you never see such dating of dry goods on packaging even though they usually have an even shorter lifespan.

Also Read: Can You Get Drunk Off Fermented Apple Juice


What can potentially make non-frozen ready-to-eat food unsafe?

A wide variety of microorganisms that cause foodborne illness, known as pathogens, are the main culprits that contaminate RTE foods. These pathogenic organisms include bacteria, viruses, parasites and even fungi.  Some examples of common pathogens that can contaminate RTE foods are: Salmonella, Norovirus, Scromboid Toxins and Listeria monocytogenes.

According to ready to eat non frozen meals are also known as RTE foods, specifically pertaining to food that has been prepared and packaged for sale or service.

So knowing this information what would be the best way to reduce the risk of these pathogens contaminating your meal? Storing non frozen ready-to eat product in a clean refrigerator set at 40°F or below with a relative humidity of 60% or less.

According to USDA guidelines, refrigerated foods should be stored at a temperature of 40°F (4°C) degrees or below while frozen food should be stored at 0°F (-18°C) degrees or below.

For some RTE products, the safe storage time is short because some pathogen growth or toxin production is significant at refrigerator or freezer temperatures.

For those products, the times allowed from production until consumption must be minimized and often can be as short as a few days (such as deli meats). If these items are not used within this time frame, they should be discarded.

If food can’t be refrigerated or frozen relatively fast, then the food must be treated to destroy or eliminate pathogens. For example, many ready-to-eat foods are heated (pasteurized) to kill disease-causing microorganisms.

The following table shows some specific time and temperature combinations that will pasteurize RTE products for safety according to USDA guidelines.

Another important note to remember is that when in doubt, throw it out!  If you are in any way uncertain about the safety of a food item, despite how well it was handled or stored, do not eat it. Remember when in doubt – THROW IT OUT!

A general rule-of-thumb for refrigerated, ready-to-eat foods:

If it’s been over two hours since you left the store and the temperature of your refrigerator is above 40°F (4°C), discard the food. If in any doubt, throw it out.

If you find yourself with a lot of perishable items and can’t get through them in a timely fashion, consider having a neighborhood food swap or use frozen meal starter kits to keep you in fresh and safe prepared meals.

Remember when in doubt – THROW IT OUT!

Date Marking None frozen Ready To Eat Food

Every ready to eat meals are date marked for a reason. According to the FSIS: “Food products that are not date marked must be consumed or frozen within a short period of time and should only be purchased when you plan on eating them soon.”

What foods need to be date marked?

Ready to eat food means any food that is cooked, baked, processed or reheated for consumption. It does NOT include raw meat, poultry, fish, shellfish or eggs.

For meat and poultry products that are ready to eat, you must follow the labeling requirements on the product’s label. If there is no product label, then it does not have a date mark.

For example deli meats, hotdogs & mechanically separated meat. They don’t date mark them because of the low risk of foodborne illness.

Remember that the best way to reduce your risk of getting sick from eating RTE products is to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold, until you are ready to use them .

Also see How Long Can You Keep Food in Your Refrigerator?

Interestingly, uncut portions of processed cured meats packaged in cellulose, like salami and bologna do not need to be the date marked. They do need to display safe handling instructions.


As a general guide, non-frozen ready-to-eat meals must not be kept in the fridge longer than 7-10 days before they are consumed. Even if the date marking of the RTE meal indicates the food item to be within the recommended shelf life, non frozen food items must not be consumed or stored in the fridge for more than 7 days before use.

If you find yourself with a lot of perishable items and can’t get through them in a timely fashion, consider having a neighborhood food swap or use frozen meal starter kits to keep you in fresh and safe prepared meals.

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