What is Lunch Meat?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
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  • Last Modified Date: 09 October 2019
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Lunch meat is a meat that is sold already cooked, so that it can be eaten exactly as is. Some people refer to it as “cold cuts,” in a reference to the fact that they are often eaten cold. There are a wide range of styles in the lunch meat family, ranging from SPAM® and other reclaimed meats to slices of honey roasted turkey. Most markets stock them, usually under refrigeration, and shoppers can also purchase them from a local butcher or deli in addition to preparing them at home.

The defining characteristic of a lunch meat is that it should be safe to eat exactly as is. Most are cooked to remove harmful bacteria and then held under refrigeration to ensure that they stay safe. Others may be cured in various ways; prosciutto, for example, is not cooked traditionally, but it has been cured so that it is safe to eat. These meats can be mild or spicy, recognizable as part of an animal or made from ground parts that are packed together into a block or sausage.

Many people like to use lunch meat in sandwiches; pastrami, ham, chicken, and turkey are all commonly used in this way. Many cultures have developed their own unique sandwich specialties that use regionally available meats and cater to local flavor preferences. Thin slices of meat can also be served on appetizer platters, or paired with things like fruit and cheese at a buffet.


Many cold cuts are made from meat that has been brined and smoked, or seasoned with ingredients like peppers, honey, or various other spices. These have rich flavors that pair well with strong breads like rye or sourdough. Traditionally, cured meats like pastrami are popular with pickled ingredients such as sauerkraut, while salami and other cured Italian sausages go well with cheeses.

Lunch meats also do not have to be served cold. Many regional sandwich specialties like Reubens and the classic New York pastrami sandwich feature heated meats, for example, and varieties like ham can be chopped up and added to omelets, quiche, and other dishes.

Handling directions for lunch meats vary, depending on the meat and how it has been prepared. With cooked ones like leftover chicken or turkey, the meat should be kept refrigerated and used within a few days. Cured meats like salami can often be held at room temperature until they are opened, at which point they should be refrigerated and used relatively quickly. Sliced meats from a deli generally keep for only a few days under refrigeration, and people should always discard meat that looks or smells questionable.


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Post 12

I never make Reuben sandwiches at home because I am the only one in my family who likes them. One of my favorite restaurants serves this with smoked turkey meat which is the best Reuben I have ever eaten. I think the meat does make a difference in how well a sandwich tastes. I like the taste of the smoked turkey much better than something like corned beef lunch meat.

Post 11

My husband takes a cold lunch to work every day. He doesn't have a microwave or refrigerator to warm up his food or keep it cold, so he is very limited in what he can take. His lunch usually consists of some kind of sandwich along with some fruit and chips.

He got to the point where he couldn't eat lunch meat any more. He still takes a sandwich with meat but it has to be a 'real' piece of meat. Many times I will make a sandwich with leftover roast, ham or even a hamburger.

He will eat lunch meat if it is served at an informal party or reception, but his first choice is always something that is more substantial.

Post 10

@SarahSon -- I feel the same way you do, but lunch meat is a big business! I work at an elementary school and see many kids bring lunch meat and 'Lunchables' every day to school for their lunch. Lunch meat is convenient, and when paired with a slice of cheese and a cracker it makes a very popular choice for a lot of people.

Post 9

When I buy meat for sandwiches I like to have it sliced for me at the deli instead of buying it pre-packaged. It has been years since I have had a piece of bologna and I don't know if I could stomach it.

When I think about this being ground parts packed together, that sounds really gross and is not appealing to me all. I would rather eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich than put a slice of that on my bread. It wouldn't matter if it was organic lunch meat or not, I think there are a lot more options out there that are much better for me.

Post 8

@Oceana – Vienna sausages are kind of gross to think about, too, but I eat them anyway. They come in little pop top cans that are so convenient.

I don't have much time to eat lunch, so I just open a can of vienna sausages, rinse them off, and eat them with crackers. I know there is a lot of fat in them, but they sure are filling.

I don't eat them every day, but I do admit that I eat them more than I should. It just seems that healthy food is so much more time consuming to prepare!

Post 7

It sounds gross to refer to SPAM as reclaimed meat, but that's what it is. I eat it all the time, but I try not to think about what is in it.

Some people like to eat it straight from the can, but I prefer mine rolled in flour and fried in canola oil. This is the way my mother made it. It takes on a crusty exterior, and it tastes better warm and in between two slices of bread.

Post 6

Bologna is my favorite kind of lunch meat. I like to slice it like a pie into six pieces and put each slice on a cracker.

When paired with crackers, it's really more of a snack. It's not as filling as other types of lunch meat, so I have to bring some yogurt and a salad or a banana to eat with it.

I do like bologna on white or wheat bread occasionally, but since I don't like mayonnaise, it is a little dry this way. Bologna and crackers has been a favorite of mine since childhood, and it's quick and easy to make, too.

Post 5

I have high blood pressure, so I go with low sodium lunch meat. I've been able to find some sliced chicken breast and smoked turkey with much less sodium than the regular versions.

Now that I've gotten used to the low sodium kind, the regular kind tastes far too salty. I know that what I'm eating now is much better for me in the long run, because I do eat it five days a week.

Post 4

Maybe I have odd taste buds but I prefer to pair strong lunch meats with mild breads and vice versa. I'm the same with cheese and meat. A slice of mild cheddar goes great with salami on a lightly toasted white bun! I prefer to have one dominant flavor at a time, then I can appreciate and savor it.

Having read this article I'm going to be on the look out for some lunch meat recipes. I never thought about being able to make a proper meal with it before.

Post 3

I have given up buying pastrami as it always seemed to go kind of shiny and slimy on me. I made sure to follow the rules about keeping it cold after I brought it home from the deli but it happened every time anyhow.

These days my go to sandwich filler is turkey lunch meat. It's perfect with a little mustard and some salad.

Post 2

@anon39875 - If by processed you mean reconstituted, then no. Pastrami is made by curing a joint of beef in a salty liquid. All that you are really adding is spices and other things to make it taste good.

Because the majority of the salt is rinsed off after it is cured, I think pastrami is one of the healthiest lunch meats. It's very tasty too of course!

Post 1

Is pastrami a processed meat?

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