Clean and organize your refrigerator

Tomorrow, November 15, is Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day in the U.S. I’m not really sure who decided to declare such a day, but my guess is a refrigerator manufacturer or food producer had something to do with it. I only know about it because of Hallmark’s Ultimate Holiday Site, which tracks the most absurd holidays. (Case in point, today is National Guacamole and Pickle Day.) Although zany, Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day makes a teensy bit of sense being so close to Thanksgiving — it is a good idea to make room in your refrigerator for all the food that will be needing space in the coming days.

When cleaning out a refrigerator that hasn’t been tended to in many months, I like to tackle it in the following manner:

  • Gather supplies. Two large trash bags nested one inside the other (food is heavy and a broken bag makes a huge mess) is a must. You’ll also want a bucket with fresh, warm (not hot) water and mild dish detergent with a sponge. Also, a roll of paper towels or a few clean hand towels are good to have with you to dry the shelves when you’re finished wiping them down, especially for the freezer. Finally, I recommend having a notepad and pen handy so you can create a shopping list as you work.
  • Purge all food past its prime. Working from top to bottom, clear out all food from your refrigerator that is expired, rotten, and not good for eating. If you don’t know if something is edible, check StillTasty.com. If a food is in a jar or bottle and you can’t find its expiration date, visit the company’s website. Many websites have sections where you can enter the item’s bar code and learn its shelf life information.
  • Wipe it down. Give all the walls and shelves of your refrigerator a firm but gentle scrubbing. Clean up all spills, leaks, and general yuckiness that can dirty up the inside of your refrigerator.
  • Organize. In addition to putting like items with like items (making it easier to retrieve foods, as well as remembering what items you have), consider employing some advanced organizing techniques. Add stackable, removable shelves or under shelf baskets to better separate items. Use shelf liners to make it easier to clean up future messes and to keep round foods from rolling. If your crisper is where foods go to mold, try removing your drawers so you won’t forget about your produce (if you’re a visual processor, this may really help you). Also, learn what the recommended cooling temperatures for your food are so you know where the best place is inside your refrigerator to store each item.
  • Clean the containers. Now is a great time to wash all the reusable food containers that may have been hiding storing rotted items.

While you’re working, it’s also nice to inspect the seals on your refrigerator. Are they letting air escape? If they are, you can likely replace them yourself for not very much money or effort. Check your manufacturer’s website for exact information on the replacement seal required for your specific refrigerator model.

If your workplace refrigerator is in need of a good cleaning, you still have time to organize a clean-up project for tomorrow. You may want to add rubber gloves to your list of supplies, though. You never know what science experiments are happening in the back of those shelves.

Random note: November 15 is also Sadie Hawkins Day, so if you are female you can ask a male to help you clean out your refrigerator and celebrate two bizarre holidays at once.

42 Comments for “Clean and organize your refrigerator”

  1. posted by CM on

    I always feel better after cleaning out the fridge. I try to do it regularly so we end up identifying food that needs to be used up soon instead of having to throw so much away. The double-bag tip is great, I need to remember that. But I think shelf liners would impede air circulation in the fridge.

  2. posted by GE on

    Any tips on how to organize the stuff and shelf heights before putting it all back in to optimize the space usage?

  3. posted by Lyndey on

    A few things to add:

    1. If the container has food that has rotted beyond recognition, toss the whole thing out; don’t try to save the container. When in doubt, throw the whole thing out. You might save a few pennies by cleaning out a container, but you’re also risking exposure to some serious bacteria.

    2. While we’re on the topic of containers, you should also take an inventory of the ones not currently in use. Are they in decent condition (e.g.: not stained, cracked, etc.)? Do they ALL HAVE MATCHING LIDS THAT SEAL*? If not, throw. them. out.

    3. finally, if you want to limit the amount of space in your fridge, thus preventing leftovers from getting pushed to the back until you have a penicillin factory, consider buying small mailing boxes at your local office supply store. You can fill them with packing peanuts or newspaper for insulation and then wrap the boxes in plastic to prevent condensation from seeping in. I did this on the bottom shelf of my fridge and it really forces me to either use or toss things much more quickly.

    (*Sorry for the caps, my mother and I have this discussion on a regular basis; I’m sure there’s at least one person out there who understands)

  4. posted by Max Leibman on

    Coincidentally, this is already on my list for Wednesday (I have a meeting tonight and a class tomorrow night, or else it would be sooner). It was brought on by an observation by wife about missing Pyrex…

    Generally, we’re not too bad about cleaning out the fridge, but we’ve been focusing on not eating out and making use of leftovers, and has created a good deal of biological clutter for us!

  5. posted by Max Leibman on

    Aaaand more coincidence–the very minute after I posted this comment, the lead receptionist sent a notice to the entire office that the 1st floor breakroom fridge is in “dire need” of cleaning, warning all to get everything out by tomorrow. I think she’s reading Unclutterer, too…

  6. posted by bytheway on

    I make this a weekly task; goes along with the cleaning of my kitchen. Takes 5 mins to sort/pitch, tops, and I rotate weekly which surfaces I deep clean–one week it’s the shelves, another the drawers, another the door shelves, etc. So in a month everything gets surface-cleaned. Final task is to run the salvageable containers thru the dishwasher, along with the kitchen sponges/scrubbies, bathroom toothbrush holders, etc. This is one job that def gets MUCH worse the longer you put it off.

  7. posted by Vanessa on

    The other thing I like to do is keep a sharpie by the fridge. That way I can write the date that something was opened right on the bottle (condiments, spaghetti sauce etc) and I can write the date & contents on to go boxes.

  8. posted by Jodi on

    Our house has CORN on Sunday nights for dinner…Clean Out Refrigerator Night. Its a great way to force my family to keep things from living past their shelf life! We have a shelf dedicated to leftovers, so on Sunday night EVERYTHING comes off that shelf all the way to the back. Anything not used is tossed (unless it will survive another 7 days until we have CORN again).

    Our fridge does need a good wiping down though, and its been two years since I checked coils etc.

  9. Avatar of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @GE — The thing with refrigerators is that each model is so different that it’s hard to say XYZ is the best way. What I usually do when I start using a new refrigerator (usually when I move) is to get a thermometer and every day move it throughout the refrigerator. This way, I can find out how cold the door is, how cold the top shelf is, how cold the bottom shelf is, how cold the crisper drawers are, etc. Then, based on the temperature readings I get, make decisions about where to store the food. Obviously, food that requires the coolest temperatures for storing should be in the coldest areas of your refrigerator (for my current refrigerator, this is the very back of the middle shelf). Food safety, at least in my opinion, beats out arrangement.

  10. posted by Eileen @ Space Matters on

    Thanks for all the good tips everyone! Cleaning out the fridge once a week is a great idea, especially for a big family. We keep a sharpie and blank labels (address sized) by the fridge to put a note and date on everything. It helps a lot when it comes time to purge!

    Stilltasty.com is a great resource…I’m passing it along now!

  11. posted by NoAlias on

    They need to make wide, shallow refrigerators. Store the same amount of stuff, but everything is ‘up front’ and nothing gets lost and forgotten. Even a husband could find what he’s looking for. :)

  12. posted by Kari on

    I clean out the frig. once a week before I plan meals for the week and grocery shop–any old food gets tossed and things get a quick wipe down and I figure out what we have/need/need to use. This prevents a lot of food waste and helps me focus for the food week ahead.

  13. posted by Liz on

    Don’t forget to pull the refrig out and clean underneath and behind the refrig. There is a brush you can buy that helps in cleaning the dust from the coils. This will make the unit work more efficiently.

    This is also important if you have a cat who likes to play hockey with the dry cat food!

  14. posted by Carol Swedlund on

    LOL, NoAlias! I have my doubts that even a wide shallow fridge would help a husband find what he’s looking for!

  15. posted by Marjoryt on

    Lesson I’ve learned and want to pass on to folks buying a fridge – if you’ll be storing mass quantities of food – check the supports for those shelves! I picked a highly rated fridge, and it works fine for cooling. However, the supports for the racks and crispers are molded plastic – inside and on the door.
    I can’t tell you how many times we’ve lost 2 gallons of milk, because the tray was bumped and slipped out, or when I placed a tray with a turkey to defrost on a shelve, closed the door and then heard the crash – the shelf gave way.
    And, of course this always happens when it’s not time to clean! Yes, I’ve had to haul out the shop vac to get up the 2 gallons of milk, the large container of ketchup, the pickles, and the jalapeno slices on the floor – the shelf collapse caused the next shelf to collapse too.

  16. posted by Narelle @ Cook Clean Craft on

    If only my husband wasn’t on a business trip, I’d try the Sadie Hawkins/Fridge Cleanout Day trick. (Don’t like my chances!)

    It always amazes me that no matter how frequently I clean out my fridge, I always find one bottle of condiments that expired 3+ years ago. Where does this stuff come from? Do visitors bring their old condiments and swap them out with my new bottles when I’m not looking?

  17. posted by Rachel on

    @ NoAlias and Carol Swedlund:
    :-)
    I think the formal name for the condition of being unable to find anything in the fridge is called Refrigerator Shelf Blindness. I first heard of this when a cousin asked me if my husband suffered from it (as did hers, presumably). Traditionally the condition was most often experienced by men married to women, but as modern culture has redefined “family” I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about symptoms displayed by women married to men, men married to men, women married to women, and either men or women sharing kitchen space with roommates and/or colleagues. Traditional anecdotal evidence suggested that women were less likely to develop Refrigerator Shelf Blindness, but modern times may have eroded this folk belief as well.
    @ Narelle: I love the idea of the old condiment bottles appearing mysteriously. Maybe this is another domestic mystery along the lines of wire hangers multiplying or socks losing their mates.

  18. Avatar of

    posted by chacha1 on

    Just a tip I tried earlier this year that has served me well. After wiping out my vegetable drawer (which I try to do every month at least), I put a dry tea towel at the bottom.

    Bits of onion skin, etc settle on the towel and as the drawer is emptied I can just bundle up the towel, shake it into the trash can, and throw it in the wash – keeps
    the drawer much cleaner.

    We keep our fridge at 40 degrees. A thermometer is essential to double-check the effectiveness of the thermostat. Stuff keeps longer at lower temps.

  19. posted by Nana on

    When relish, mustard, etc. reaches the halfway point, I take the jar to the office and affix a “food to share” label (with month/year). At the office, we also have ‘throw away everything’ once or twice a year (T’giving weekend is a good time for that one).

  20. posted by EngineerMom on

    @Rachel – LOL, Refrigerator Shelf Blindness! My in-laws suffer from this majorly. I partially cleaned out a couple of shelves one time when we were visiting, just to have space to put in some food I’d bought for my son. Found almost two pounds of butter in separate sticks, and nearly the same amount of margarine. Right after my MIL had just asked my FIL to run to the store and get some butter for a dish she was making for supper. She literally had no idea it was in there!

    As for fridge space – do NOT get a side-by-side if you’re trying to maximize space. My sister works for GE Appliances, and says that the side-by-sides are the most inefficient use of space for the width/height of the fridge. So much space is used up by extra insulation, especially if there’s a water/ice dispenser in the door. The most space-efficient (and strongest) is also almost the cheapest – the low-end GE model with glass shelves and a top freezer. It’s what we had in our apartment and chose to buy for our house – I love it. Small enough that it’s hard to lose things (just don’t have the space – but big enough to handle a party, pans of lasagna, a cake, etc. I also love the adjustable shelves – if we have something really tall to accomodate, I can make the space. Ditto if we have several pans of food (like we did when we hosted Christmas) and need several “short” shelves.

  21. posted by luxcat on

    I suspect Refrigerator Shelf Blindness may have a sister disorder called It’s Still Good. My MIL appears to have passed this on genetically to my husband. Time will tell if it’s terminal or not.

  22. posted by Dea on

    I just did this two nights ago without even knowing about the impending “holiday”! First time I’ve read an Uncluttered post and thought, “check, already done!”. Nice feeling. And now I can just relax and enjoy the “holiday”. : )

  23. posted by organizingwithe on

    My favorite thing to put in the fridge – a turntable. Indispensable for the condiments & such that get lost in the back.

  24. posted by Olga on

    While reading I thought – how comes there is so much time spent dealing with the mess and throwing away food you spent your money and your shoping time on (not to mention other people who was producing it)?????
    Perhaps another thing should be recommended: reconsider your shopping list and weekly meal plan to optimize it.

    I do not mean you can reach point of ideal balance here, but sometimes its good to discuss with the family what they like to shop for and what they really eat.

  25. posted by Jonathan @ punchlifeintheface on

    The fridge is always the worst place in the house when it comes to flatmates. Diffusion of responsibility kicks in and there’s no one who is willing to claim that old jar of olives, either to eat or throw out.

  26. posted by Jodi on

    @GE: My tip for organizing my fridge is that I think outside the box. The drawers on the bottom of my fridge almost instantly make produce age past its usefulness. So in my fridge, all our produce is on the top shelf where it is most easily accessable and the first thing my teens see when they are prowling for a snack.

    Because of the location of our fridge (corner) and style of the door, I cannot fully open the bottom drawer on the right, so we have packets in there…packets of soy sauce left from takeout, packets of salad dressing for lunches, etc. In the other drawer is sandwich making supplies (bread, sliced cheese and the currently open lunchmeat). With two people in my family packing lunches every day that saves a little time and mental energy when making lunches in the morning.

    We keep our leftovers on the bottom shelf (see my comment above about CORN), and milk/eggs go on the middle shelf. We have an “egg box” that we keep our eggs in so we don’t fight with cartons and can see when we need eggs.

    Like Erin said, every fridge is different. That is how (and why) ours is arranged!

  27. posted by Anna on

    Perfect timing, I was going to do this today :] Great tips.

  28. posted by Jo@simplybeingmum on

    Oh wow! thanks for the heads up on this! For over 12 months now I’ve been advocating the removal of all items from the fridge and a quick clean on a Friday as part of NO WASTE TASTES GREAT. Each friday I post a photo of Simply Being Mum’s Fridge – sad but true! I wonder if I could start a UK version – but on a Friday ofcourse!

  29. posted by Jen on

    @EngineerMom – I agree on the side by side issue. We recently renovated our kitchen, and purchased a new refrigerator as part of that project- I refused to get a side by side model for that reason. You can’t possibly store anything wide in there, and don’t get me started on the freezer space issues. My in-laws have one and it’s always seemed like a silly idea to me. We got a french door (freezer on the bottom) style and I love it. It may be partly because it’s so much bigger than the old one, but it really feels much more efficiently organized. It’s also better lit, making it easier to find things.

    On a side note, since I was forced to pack up my whole kitchen, including the refrigerator eventually, I got to see exactly how much expired stuff I had floating around. It was embarrassing. I tossed stuff I didn’t even know was in my cabinets and refrigerator/freezer. Some of it was poor use of space in my cabinets (blind corners, so I couldn’t see what was in there, much less reach it), but some of it was just that I was not diligent in cleaning it out periodically or keeping track of what I had bought and when.

  30. posted by Heather P on

    I like to store packets of uncooked rice and other grains in the crisper drawer. I know I’ll remember to use them, and whole grains stay fresher that way. Veggies go up top.

  31. posted by Pearl on

    Thank God! My fridge has become a source of shame… must clean. must clean out. must initiate new and better friendship.

  32. posted by Charlotte on

    Great tips! A couple of things I have to offer: After cleaning, put in a box of baking soda to keep the fresh smell continuing. Also, a handy product I have used is a rack that sits inside the shelf of the door that enables you to store all the many different bottles upside down. This way you are able to use every last ounce of product in the bottle. Just make sure the lids are fully closed on the bottles or else you can have a big mess!

  33. posted by WilliamB on

    Expiration dates on jars of food are not necessarily related to when the food actually expires. The dates are invented by the producer. I use my senses rather than mfgr dates.

    A few more hints that help:

    1) Don’t keep too much in your fridge. A crowded fridge is just too good a hiding place. Go look at Jo@simplybeingmum’s fridge. See? No hiding places.

    2) When you can’t see the contents, write it down on the lid or on a label: salsa or hoisin sauce on the fridge door, or on the outside of the take-out box. Makes it so much easier to see what’s available.

    3) Not everything in the fridge needs to be there. Ketchup doesn’t need the cold, nor mustard, nor most hot sauces. So decide for yourself if you’re better off with that jar in the cabinet or the fridge.

  34. posted by Malcolm on

    What a good thread this is. All good tips too. Another one, along the lines of leaving bicarb in the fridge to soak up smells: after I clean the frig the last thing is to use a clean damp sponge with a few drops of vanilla essence sprinkled on it – this kills smells totally. Leaves the whole frig smelling good.

    And in our house, RSB is definitely something the females suffer from and not the males. Maybe because we are such SNAGs?

  35. posted by Monika on

    Great topic/thread. My effort in reducing what is tossed in the first place has been successful since I’ve started keeping a list on the front of the refrigerator of “perishables.” After my weekly trip to the greenmarket, I list what I am putting into the fridge (i.e. chard, cauliflower) and I add to the list whenever I add a new food with a short lifespan. This way, I see the list and am reminded exactly what needs to be eaten. I circle items that should be used right away.

    Another strategy I use to reduce food waste is to make a “kitchen sink casserole.” Take whatever produce is nearing the end of usability and combine with a can of beans, some bread or cracker crumbs, and bake for 45 minutes.

  36. posted by Maciej, Poland on

    Additional hint: remove all the stickers, magnets, sticky notes from the surface of the fridge :)

  37. posted by Jen on

    Your timing is perfect — got this tip the day I started cleaning my fridge to prep for hosting Thanksgiving. I think the point about the crispers is key — that’s where our food goes to die. I know the idea behind the crisper is to prolong the life of the produce, but I’m visual, so if I can’t see it, I forget about it. I didn’t take out the crisper all the way — just the top closing flap. Now I still have a drawer that pulls out, but there’s nothing obstructing my view of what’s in it. I’ll lose the extra life of the extra humidity, but that wasn’t helping me anyway!

  38. posted by shandra on

    Perfect timing indeed! I immediately went & cleaned my fridge – frankly, that made my day & a good ending to 2011 – actually I felt clean both in and out. Go figure!

    Thanks a million, wish you all the very best!

  39. Avatar of

    posted by PracticeMakesProgress on

    I’m a little late to the thread, but wanted to say what’s helped me keep my fridge clean and up to date. We got a new refrigerator at the beginning of the year, and I am absolutely determined to keep it spic ‘n’ span.

    We only use ONE type of food storage container, and after years of trial and error, have settled on Tellfresh brand. They come in squares and rectangles for the most efficient use of space. The body and lids are see-through; no more mystery left-overs left to rot. And they come with small snap-on, reusable labels that can be marked (in easily erasable pencil) with ‘use by’ dates. They’re dishwasher safe on the top rack, and microwaveable, but I don’t nuke food in them. I freakin’ LOVE these containers. As for them being plastic, not glass, my husband doesn’t like glass containers, and these are a great compromise. Done is better than perfect in my book.

    As others have mentioned, I put tea towels in the produce bins, and on the milk and condiment shelves. I also wipe those bottles and jars off every time I use them. It takes about 7 seconds and saves way more time trying to scrape petrified crud off later.

    Our garbage gets set out Monday night, and we go through the fridge and toss anything that’s questionable or dead, and I wipe down the shelves. None of this takes much time, and it’s made a world of difference for us.

  40. posted by Jancey on

    Can I third the recommendation not to have a side-by-side? We finally replaced our 20-year-old side by side with a freezer on top model and are thrilled with it. The sbs was narrow and deep, and everything got lost in the back. I was worried that the fridge on top wouldn’t have enough room, but it’s absolutely fine- and since everything’s front and center, nothing gets lost. Even the door shelves are better- they’re long and only wide enough for one product. In the side by side, they were narrow and deep enough for 2 products or bottles of milk or whatever- so again, more things got lost/forgotten about.

  41. posted by katrina on

    My way to avoid old food in the fridge was to replace my expiring fridge with one a third smaller than I had.

    The only drinks I store in the fridge are those that’ll ‘go bad’ if not refrigerated, eg milk and fresh juice. Anything else can be chilled with an ice cube or 3 which take up little space in the freezer.

    And I don’t have room on the shelves to allow mystery containers to build up :)

  42. posted by Kimberly on

    It’s easier just to do it every week before shopping. It takes me maybe 5-10 minutes and I never have to make it a major undertaking. Same for wiping out the oven, cleaning the drip pans, etc… Just do it weekly and it never becomes a big chore.

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