Have you ever pulled celery or carrots from the fridge only to find they had become icicles? Or poured curdled milk into your hot coffee and wanted to scream? In other words, is your fridge a place to store food, or a graveyard where food goes to be forgotten?
You probably don’t think—yet—of fridge care as self-care, but how would you take care of your fridge differently if you did? You would probably purge, clean and stock with a little more love and hopefully, a little less revulsion. So why not repair your relationships to your fridge with a do-over makeover that sets the stage for hygiene and health.
First off, the proper temp for your fridge is 40º F (4.4º C) or lower, and freezers should be at a setting of 0º F (-17.7º C). A full freezer or fridge retains cold better than an empty one. When you open the door, the mass of frozen food will help keep in the cold, and the unit won’t have to work as hard to cool empty space. But don’t jam pack the freezer either; you need air to circulate. Best rule of thumb is to keep both areas ¾ full.
Within its chilled interior, the fridge is a multi-chambered wonder, full of potential subtleties that you can learn to make the most of. Not only do refrigerators have different compartments that serve different purposes, but each compartment has a different temperature zone. By establishing a logical order in your refrigerator, a space you access over three times a day, you’ll enjoy fewer last-minute spoilers. Say hello, a stress-free meal prep.
Plus, you won’t forget or overlook ingredients you already have on-hand, which can add up to be a major money saver. According to a Johns Hopkins University study, 31 to 4o percent of the American food supply is wasted, and Americans spend $161.6 billion a year on food that goes to waste. By knowing what you have in your refrigerator and doing all you can to extend its shelf life, you are doing your part to combat food waste.
Before you start getting too granular, begin with a major cleanout and discard session, recycling and throwing away everything that’s past its prime, out-of-date or items you will not likely use. Already feeling leaner and brighter? Take the plunge and put everything back following this game plan.
How to organize your fridge – the ultimate blueprint
On top of the fridge:
The top of the fridge serves as a highly functional area to store appliances, paper towels, serving trays or cookbooks. But thinking of it as an extension of counter space is a serious no-no. It gets too warm up top for food, because to regulate cold temps inside, the fridge’s condenser coil pumps warm air out.
Pro tip: Don’t store bread, wine or produce on top of your fridge—the heat makes it prone to spoilage.
The shelves, the main compartment of your refrigerator, are where the temperature is the most stable. For that reason, you’ll want to store perishables like meat, dairy products, eggs and leftovers in this space. Restaurant kitchens often store foods that do not need cooking near the top of the fridge. Leftovers, drinks, ready-to-eat foods such as hummus or deli meats, and herbs are all great candidates for the prime real estate afforded by the upper shelves.
Pro tip: Keep herbs fresh by placing them upright in a vase or jar with water. Berries do great in the top shelf section, where they can be easily accessed and tracked for freshness.
This area is great for the key perishables: raw meat, seafood, eggs and other dairy. To prevent bacteria spreading from raw meat to other areas, assign a particular section of the fridge as your meat sector, and don’t allow any mingling with vegetables.
Pro tip: Keep meat in its original packaging, and place it on a plate or in an improvised bin that gets cleaned regularly.
These drawers are designed to maintain ideal moist conditions optimal for produce. But don’t make the mistake of jumbling all your fruit and veg in a scrum. Far better to separate, like with like, fruits in one drawer and veg in another. Many fruits, including apples, peaches, plums, pears and cantaloupes, produce ethylene, a chemical that helps them to ripen. But ethylene can also cause your green and vegetables to over ripen and go soggy.
Pro tip: Put vegetables and leafy greens in reusable bags, where they’ll stay crisp and for at least a few days longer than if you just leave them in there unprotected.
Doors are best for condiments, salad dressings, juices, maple syrup and things that don’t perish quickly.
Pro tip: The door works fine for orange juice, since orange juice is pasteurized and the citric acid naturally prevents bacteria growth.
Leftovers, frozen vegetables or fruit or ingredients that will be used within a week. Like the fridge, freezer doors are the warmest part.
Pro tip: Because of their high oil content, nuts can go rancid very quickly. You can freeze both nuts and nut flours in the freezer door if you don’t plan on using them right away. Nuts and whole grains both work well for the freezer door.
Ice cream or meat works best on freezer shelves.
Pro tip: Line things up from back to front. Always put stuff new towards the back and pull the older stuff (the stuff that needs to be eaten first) to the front.
Optional fridge items
If buying room temperature eggs from a farmer, it’s fine to keep them at room temperature. If buying already refrigerated eggs, it’s best to then also store them in the refrigerator. This is because a refrigerated egg left on the counter can sweat, encouraging bacteria growth.
Pro tip: Nut butters are controversial regarding refrigeration. Some, like peanut butter, don’t spread as well if they are chilled. If you don’t plan on finishing your jar of natural peanut butter within a month or so, or if you live in a hot climate, consider refrigerating it. The oils in the peanuts can go rancid if it’s not kept cool.
Those items include avocados, bananas, bread, potatoes, tomatoes and unripened stone fruits like peaches or cherries.
Pro tip: Vegetable, olive, coconut and other cooking oils will quickly solidify in the fridge. Keep them on a cool, dark shelf in the pantry instead.