Will this lunch be safe to eat by Friday? We asked the experts.
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chicken salad in a container with a lid on side
Credit: Photo: Caitlin Bensel; Food Stylist: Torie Cox

Most Southerners love good homemade chicken salad, whether on a sandwich, atop a salad, or on the end of a buttery cracker. It's tempting to stir up a big batch so that we can enjoy leftovers for a few days.

But how long is it safe to keep chicken salad on hand? The short answer is to store chicken salad in a sealed container in the fridge or cooler for no more than four days. Here's why.

How Long Does Chicken Salad Last?

Given that the main ingredient in chicken salad is cooked chicken, we can turn to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's recommendation to use cooked chicken within three to four days and to keep it at 40°F or below. FoodSafety.gov, run by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, says the same thing.

To keep track of time, you should store homemade chicken salad in a sealed container with the date it was made marked clearly on top, and heed the freshness date on store-bought chicken salad, too.

We must blame two categories of bad bacteria when things go bad for chicken salad, not mayonnaise or luck. Spoilage bacteria cause food to deteriorate and develop unpleasant odors, tastes, and textures. Pathogenic bacteria cause foodborne illness, what most of us call food poisoning, but they generally don't affect the taste, smell, or appearance of the contaminated food. That's why we can never rely on tasting or sniffing chicken salad to determine its safety. We're taking a potentially serious risk if we guess wrong. When in doubt, throw it out. 

chicken salad in a container with lid on top
Credit: Photo: Caitlin Bensel; Food Stylist: Torie Cox

How to Store Chicken Salad

Bad bacteria can grow rapidly in the "Danger Zone," a temperature range between 40°F and 140°F, so always transport and store chicken salad in the refrigerator or a well-chilled cooler or lunchbox.

Also, don't leave it sitting out at room temperature for longer than two hours, and even less when outdoors on a hot day or in direct sun. The clock starts ticking when the container comes out of the fridge or cooler, including time it spends in a grocery cart and the ride home from the store.

Some spoilage bacteria can grow at cold temps too, so even when carefully stored and refrigerated, toss that chicken salad after four days. 

Can You Freeze Chicken Salad?

Although 32°F is well below the 40°F safety threshold, chicken salad isn't a good candidate for storing in the freezer. It usually turns watery and loses its texture when thawed, so although it might be safe to eat, it's no longer enjoyable.