Most of us are doing a lot more cooking right now while trying to make a lot fewer trips to the grocery store. And the refrigerator is probably feeling it.
It’s time to give the appliance the love and attention it deserves. An organized fridge will help you save time and money, while also helping to extend the shelf life of your groceries. It also means less food waste, fewer odors, and less frustration trying to find the broccoli hiding amid the shelves.
Here are strategies to help you make the most of your efforts.
Clean your fridge from top to bottom before diving into the actual organizing. A sparkly fridge is not only nicer to look at but it’s also better for your groceries.
“Your refrigerator can take on a microbial profile,” says Rosemary Trout, program director of culinary arts and food science at Drexel University. “When you have a lot of things that might be going bad, you can have airborne mold that can spoil other foods and often impart unpleasant flavors onto foods.”
Soap and water are all you need. It’s important to minimize the amount of time food stays outside of the fridge. Wait to do a deep clean until you’re low on groceries. And even then, take it shelf by shelf. If you have highly perishable foods, like meats or fish, put them in a cooler with ice packs while you clean.
Chicken, salmon, steak: They should all go on the bottom level.
“This is usually the coldest part of your refrigerator, and also, there’s less chance for cross-contamination when you keep them down below,” says Trout.
Raw meat can spread pathogens if packaging leaks, which becomes a problem for ingredients like lettuce that aren’t cooked before eating. If refrigerator space is tight and you can’t isolate meat and seafood, double wrap it in the same plastic grocery bag that you took it home.
The door is often the warmest part of a refrigerator. In other words, it’s not the place to stash your perishables, including milk and eggs.
“Stick to condiments,” says Don Schaffner, food microbiology professor at Rutgers University. “Condiments usually have a higher salt content and lower pH value, which makes them more shelf stable.”
As for butter? Schaffner says door storage is fine.
A fridge stuffed to the brim reduces energy efficiency by making it harder for air to circulate. This can decrease shelf life, too.
“That air flow helps to maintain the right temperature of the fridge,” says Trout.
An over-packed fridge also means you spend longer looking for something. (Where did I put the scallions?) The longer you keep the fridge open, the harder it has to work to bring the temperature back down.
Overstuffing the freezer is less of a problem, says Trout, but you should be smart about how you pack it to minimize the amount of time the freezer door stays open. Not sure where to start? Try categorizing frozen foods — fruit and veggies on the left, frozen meat on the right, and prepared foods in the center.
There are four words to remember when it comes to the fridge: “First in, first out,” says Schaffner.
“You want to use the oldest food first to cut down on waste, and create a system to do so,” says Schaffner. “I follow the ‘keep like with like’ rule — the new container of half-and-half goes right behind the older container, and this way I don’t reach in the fridge and mistakenly open the new one.”
Schaffner says to do this in the pantry, too. Put the newest boxes of pasta in the back of the cupboard, and rotate them forward each time you load up on more.
Love cheese? Dedicate a drawer for dairy. If you don’t have the room, just be sure to stash your cheddar away from your produce, says Trout.
“Produce, cherries especially, pick up flavors from other foods nearby,” says Trout.
Separating produce from dairy, and dairy from meat, will also reduce the potential for cross-contamination.
The FDA recommends keeping your refrigerator at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. If your refrigerator doesn’t have a built-in thermometer, Schaffner says to steer towards the cooler settings available to you.
“A colder fridge will give you a longer shelf life, but occasionally that’ll mean your lettuce freezes,” says Schaffner. “The solution isn’t always to raise the temperature — first, try a new spot for the lettuce. Every refrigerator is different, so you’ll have to learn where your extra-cold spots are.”
Keep the freezer at zero degrees Fahrenheit or below.
Whether you need extra room in your fridge or just bought one too many cartons of strawberries, use your freezer to save fruit.
“You really don’t need to do anything special for berries — just throw them in a bag, and date it with a Sharpie, says Trout.
Revive frozen fruit in smoothies, oatmeal, cobblers, wine (as ice cubes), fruit syrups (for pancakes), and more.
Most refrigerator drawers have adjustable humidity vents, which allow you to close off the airflow (creating more humidity) or open it up (decrease the humidity). If you don’t see a humidity slide on your crisper drawer, it’s probably built for high humidity.
Humidity helps prevent vegetables that wilt from shriveling up, like lettuce, kale, and asparagus.
Drawers are also good for produce that releases ethylene, a gas that’s released as certain fruits ripen, like apples, kiwis, peaches, and pears. Ethylene can cause other produce to ripen or spoil more quickly. Close off the airflow of your drawer, and you’ll prevent the ethylene from flowing to other parts of the fridge.
Keep the foods you eat the most closest to eye level for easy access. The top shelf is also a prime spot for foods that go bad quickly. This ensures you see them every time you look in the fridge.
To keep your drawers from turning into compost bins, Schaffner recommends posting notes on your fridge.
“Just this week, I wrote a note saying, ‘Hey remember to eat some oranges, and they’re in the bottom drawer,' ” says Schaffner.
If you’re not sure how long you can keep that opened bottle of BBQ sauce, check out the USDA’s FoodKeeper website, also available as a smartphone app for Android and Apple devices. The platform lets you learn about storage for everything from barley to rotisserie chicken to shredded coconut and cantaloupe.