How Long Until Food Goes Bad In The Freezer?

Tom Gaffey
by Tom Gaffey
Credit: Shutterstock / happycreator

Freezing leftovers and any perishable food item you don’t plan on using immediately is a great way to preserve freshness. Food lasts longer in the freezer than it does in the refrigerator, and often tastes just as good once it is properly thawed. While food might last for upwards of months in the freezer, it doesn’t last forever. How long should you store food in the freezer before it goes bad?

It is best to eat food stored in your freezer within three to four months of placing it there. In theory, many food items stay safe indefinitely in the freezer, as the cold temperature freezes most harmful bacteria. The food quality, however, starts declining after just a few months, and quality declines significantly in most food items after six months or longer.

When storing food in the freezer, it is important to remember that just because the food is technically safe to eat, doesn’t mean it is a good idea. Anyone who has ever tasted freezer-burned vegetables or meat that has been frozen for a year can attest to this. Keep reading if you want to know how quickly you should be going through your frozen foods, and when they should be thrown away.

How Long Should You Keep Food In The Freezer?

While there is no exact expiration date on frozen foods, there are guidelines and agreed-upon recommendations. Generally speaking, you should eat frozen foods like leftovers, meats, vegetables, and other perishables within three to four months of freezing them. This ensures your food is not only safe to eat, but it still tastes good and has not lost its integrity.

Food can stay safe in the freezer for years, but most food items begin to lose their taste, or even take on a foul taste, after six months or so. Therefore, the rule of thumb is to try and eat your frozen foods in the first three months or so, and after six months after freezing, you should toss most foods. Certain items like nuts, seeds, and other items placed in the freezer can last longer if they are well-preserved. Meat, leftovers, and more perishable items, however, start losing integrity after the four or five-month mark.

Does Freezing Food Keep It Fresh Indefinitely?

One question people often ask is whether freezing food keeps it fresh forever. Naturally, nothing lasts forever, but in theory, freezing food does keep the bacteria away and pauses any decomposition. Therefore, freezing food does keep food safe to eat for upwards of years.

The important thing to note is that just because something is edible, doesn’t mean it is a good idea to eat it. Old food can taste weird, or “off.” Freezer burnt food can taste just like the freezer smells, which can be unsettling. It is not dangerous to eat freezer-burnt food, but it isn’t something you should be serving to guests - or even yourself if you can help it.

Signs It Is Time To Throw Out Frozen Food

1. The Food Looks Discolored

One of the tell-tale signs that your food has been in the freezer too long is its color. If the food you placed in the freezer was vibrant in color and now looks dull and muted, you can assume it has lost much of its flavor and freshness. This color change is particularly noticeable on raw meats, and also fresh vegetables.

2. It Isn’t Labeled And You Don’t Know What It Is

One common situation that occurs when people rummage through a freezer is finding a frozen container that is unidentifiable. Whether it is covered in a white frost or is simply impossible to identify, the odds are it should be tossed. Unlabeled food that you can’t identify is usually something that should not be consumed. You have no idea how old it is, and you don’t even know what it is. This is why labeling and dating your food before you place it in the freezer is so critical.

3. It Looks Freezer-Burned

Freezer burn is a problem that involves dehydration and oxidation of your food. Moisture is sucked out and then covered along the outside of your food in the form of ice crystals. It can look like the food is partially cooked, especially on meat.

As mentioned previously, you can still eat freezer-burnt food, but it is not likely to taste good. Furthermore, once food becomes freezer burnt it only continues to deteriorate in quality. Therefore, if you notice freezer-burnt food - especially meat and produce - it is best to throw them away.

4. The Container It Was In Is Cracked Or Opened

Another visual sign that it is time to toss your leftovers is if the plastic or glass container in the freezer is damaged or somehow compromised. If the Ziplock bag has opened, or the food storage container has cracked, then the food is likely no good. Any food directly exposed to the freezer air will lose quality quickly, and it also takes on whatever smell is in the freezer.

You must use quality containers with a quality sealing mechanism to best avoid this. Don’t use flimsy Tupperware, as plastic can deteriorate over time in freezing conditions.

5. You Recently Lost Power For Several Hours Or Longer

While your frozen food lasts for a long time in a functional freezer, all bets are off once you lose power. Your freezer can keep items frozen for hours after a power outage, but if you lose power for many hours, that is a different story.

Any time you have a major power outage for a day or longer, and your food thaws, it must be eaten or thrown away. This is a reason why it is always good to use the food in your freezer, and not hoard too much inside it. You could be at risk of losing much of your frozen inventory after a major outage.

6. It Smells ‘Off’ Once It’s Thawed

Another test to see if your food has been frozen too long is the smell test. If your food smells normal, or hardly smells, that is fairly normal. But if your food smells somehow “off” then that should cause some alarm. If the food smells like the freezer or has a distinctly off smell that doesn't belong, then it might have stayed in the freezer too long, or been improperly stored. Remember that if food smells funky, then it will likely taste funky too.

7. It Has Been Frozen For More Than Six Months

If you label and date your food before freezing it (and you should), then you should periodically go through the freezer’s contents. Look at the items and the dates they were frozen. Try moving food that has been in the freezer longer than a month or two to the front so you don’t forget about it. If you notice food like holiday leftovers in the freezer after more than six months, it should be tossed, or cooked sooner than later before it continues to degrade in quality.

8. It’s Been So Long You Forgot It Was Even In The Freezer

Lastly, one sign that you need to throw frozen food away is when you discover something that has been in the freezer so long you forgot it was even there. This happens to the best of us. Freezers have a way of hiding food out of view.

Once you stumble upon one of these surprise discoveries, however, it is usually best to just toss the item in question, especially if it suffers from other symptoms like freezer burn or discoloration.

Final Thoughts On How Long Until Food Goes Bad In A Freezer

Frozen food stays fresher much longer than food left in the refrigerator, but it won’t taste fresh forever. While food can stay safe to consume indefinitely in the freezer, it begins losing freshness after just a few months. It is recommended to eat frozen foods within three to four months after freezing them. Make sure you label foods with the date, so you know how long it has been frozen. Freezer-burned, discolored, or food that has been frozen longer than six months is likely to continually decline in quality.

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Tom Gaffey
Tom Gaffey

Tom Gaffey is an expert writer who currently resides in Washington D.C. Tom has a passion for real estate and home improvement writing, as well as travel and lifestyle writing. He lived the last twelve years in Hawaii where he worked closely with luxury resorts and event planners, mastering his knowledge of aesthetics and luxury products. This is where he found his passion for home improvement and a keen interest in DIY projects. Currently, Tom resides in Washington D.C, and also working on his debut fiction novel.

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