The freezer can be a lifesaver — the perfect place for leftovers you can't finish any time soon, in-a-pinch meals for the family, and sweet treats for hot summer days. And according to the USDA, food kept consistently at 0°F will always be safe — it's just the quality of the food that will suffer (read: It will be OK to eat, but it might not necessarily have the taste or texture you like).
That being said, not everyone's freezer is 100 percent consistent, and the temperature can fluctuate if you're opening the door a lot, or if you live in an area that frequently loses power. Here are some signs that something might have gone bad. (Note: None of them involve tasting something to find out!)
1. There are ice crystals inside the packaging.
Those sweet little snowflakes accumulating inside your zip-top bag? They're a sign of freezer burn, which happens as water molecules inside your food work their way out of the food toward colder areas of the freezer (like its walls). While that food may still technically be safe to eat, the fact that it's losing moisture means that the taste and texture won't be as good when you reheat it. It can also be a sign of fluctuating temperatures inside your freezer.
2. The protein has changed color.
If that red steak has turned gray-ish brown, or your pink pork is looking dark brown or gray, beware — those changes in color mean that they've come in contact with air, so they could be dry and leathery, at the least. While they might technically be safe to eat, they're not going to taste great.
3. The veggies look super dull.
Store frozen broccoli for too long and it's going to lose its bright-green exterior. Same with other cooked foods — if they're they not as bright as they used to be, it's usually a sign that they're drying out due to improper packaging or being stored too long.
4. You can't remember when exactly you put something in there.
While food frozen under ideal conditions can last indefinitely, its quality will deteriorate after a few months (and some foods, like mayonnaise, just don't freeze well to begin with). Get into the habit of dating your frozen food when you stick it in the freezer and use the government's Food Safety App to figure out when items will be past their prime.
5. There's evidence of spills.
If you see pooling at the bottom of your freezer, especially pinkish-looking meat juices, that's a bad sign. Either your freezer warmed up somehow and something thawed (meaning it's no longer safe to eat if you don't catch it right away) or juices dripped before the item froze, contaminating any items that may have come into contact with the juices. You're gonna want to clean up the mess and assess what happened.
See the steps: How To Clean The Freezer
6. There's a rancid or off odor.
This smell might not be so obvious until the food is thawed, but, especially for meat and seafood, if it has a funky odor, it has gone bad due to a sub-ideal freezer situation. Don't even risk it — just call in some takeout.
7. The defrosted food is sticky or slimy.
Once you've thawed something, check the texture: If it's sticky or slimy, it's probably no good anymore. Sorry.
A note on freezing food: Remember that if you freeze things right away (versus after they've been sitting on the counter a while, or in the fridge a few days), they'll last longer and taste better once you thaw them. When you're ready to eat something, thaw it in the fridge, microwave, or under cold running water — never on your countertop! For a reminder of safe freezing practices, visit FoodSafety.gov.