How Long Can Groceries Stay in the Car?

by Charlie
Paper bag with groceries

We’ve all done it. We went and got groceries and then forgot that we needed to make one more stop along the way. Or we ran multiple errands and by the time we got home we completely forgot we had some groceries in the back.

But at what temperature can you forget your groceries in the car and they would still be okay? Or if you hit some traffic on the way home and couldn’t help the time passing, how would your groceries fair in your car?

How long can groceries stay in the car? If the temperature is below 40 degrees, majority of your groceries (excluding frozen food) would be completely fine if left in the car. However, after 1 hour of your groceries in the car, some items could be at risk. Between car temperatures of 40-90 degrees, groceries should not sit in the car more than 2 hours (1 hour if >90 degrees).

How to Know if Your Groceries are Safe After Being Left in the Car

If you’ve accidentally left your groceries in the car and remembered to bring them in later, are they okay to eat? Well, maybe.

Your boxed and canned goods would be okay. Your refrigerated items might be okay, depending on the weather outside. The same goes for your frozen foods. How long they were in the car and what the temperature was would determine if your groceries would be okay to try to still eat.

If you want to know if you can still eat or drink an item from your grocery list, you’ll have to become a bit of a scientist.

Tip #1: Smell it

Trust your nose. Our noses are amazing and can help you detect any number of good or bad things. You smell the smoke way before you see the flames. If your nose tells you it’s off, don’t try it.

Tip #2: Pour it/open it

You know what it’s supposed to look like. You know how it should be when you open the package up. You’ll know if the coloring is off. If it looks funky, wrong, off, or lumpy when it shouldn’t be, you probably shouldn’t try it. It won’t be worth the stomach pain, or worse, later.

What Happens if You Leave Groceries in a Car Overnight?

The temperature would have to be right if you left them in the car overnight. Which if you have canned items, cold items, and frozen items all together, is going to mean different temperatures.

If your groceries are left in your car overnight, there is a chance that one kind of your groceries will go bad. Your cold items need to be at one temperature and your frozen items need another. Your cold items might be okay at one temp, but your frozen might be melted. If your frozen items are okay, your cold items might have burst.

There’s really no way that all of your groceries are going to come out unscathed by leaving them out overnight. No matter the temperature, something is going to get messed up.

Can You Leave Groceries in a Cold Car?

You can leave your groceries in a cold car. if you have only cold, they can be left at one temp. If you have only frozen, they can be left at another temp. In addition, there should be no issues with leaving eggs or milk in the car.

Cold foods will be fine in your car overnight if the temp outside is 40 degrees or colder, but not below freezing. Frozen food will be okay if the temp is around 0 degrees. If you have both in your car at these temperatures, one or the other may not make it until the morning.

If it’s around 0 degrees, and you have any kind of liquid beverages, those are going to be in trouble if it gets too cold. Your cans could burst. Your softer cold items like cheese would start to get a little frosty. Anything that was glass would have a chance of busting.

If it’s around the 40 degree mark, your cold stuff would be fine. It would be like being in the fridge at that point. But then your frozen items would be melted. They wouldn’t necessarily go bad, but be defrosted.

If you had frozen meats, you couldn’t refreeze them. If you had something like ice cream, proceed with caution. You could potentially refreeze it, but be careful not to spill it while transferring it to the house.

What Happens if You Leave Groceries in a Hot Car?

Leaving the groceries in a hot car is the worst. This is where mostly everything will be at risk. Hot temperatures and fresh food do not mix well.

You only have a small window for your perishable items to be able to safe in hotter temperatures. Once it gets above 40 degrees your refrigerated items will start to grow unhealthy bacteria.

Within 1 hour certain items can be at risk. You only have 2 hours to get those groceries inside the fridge. If it’s 90 degrees or hotter, you have 1 hour, max. Every 20 minutes out of the cooler your fresh food is growing harmful bacteria.

You can’t mess around with groceries in your car. Now, boxed or canned items won’t be that affected. It’s your fresh food and your frozen food that could potentially be ruined from being exposed to the heat for too long.

How Can You Keep Your Groceries Safe?

So we know that you can’t keep groceries in your car for longer than 2 hours no matter the temperature. And that leaving them in the car overnight is pretty much going to mess up one kind of your groceries.

But there are some things you can do to safely get your groceries home if you were to get stuck in traffic or couldn’t get your groceries home right away.

Method #1: Insulated bags are your friends

These are a small investment compared to the potential amount of spoiled food you might have to throw away. These will keep your refrigerated and cold items safe for longer periods of time.

Method #2: Try to do grocery shopping last

If you have to run a lot of errands, and grocery shopping is one of many on your list, plan to do it last. Your groceries can’t be in the car for that long. You don’t want to waste your money.

Method #3: While at the store, get your cold items last

Same theory applies. Whenever I see people with their frozen and cold items in the other sections of the store, I feel bad for the groceries. Who knows how long they have been out of the freezer already.

So keep those groceries, and your health, safe by paying a bit more attention to when you get your groceries and how much time you have to get them home. Your gut, wallet, and nose will thank you.

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