By Stacey Ballis
October 08, 2019
Photo by Maxine Builder

My fridge is pretty well organized. It has a glass door, so I have to keep it tidy or the whole world can see my shame. And it is very deep, so if I don’t keep if well-organized things can easily get lost in the back of the shelves, only to be discovered days or weeks later, doing their best to become either sentient or penicillin. My freezer, while blissfully hidden behind a stainless door, still needs to be organized well due to the same depth issue.

But I did not always have such an embarrassment of riches! I lived for many years with a smallish apartment fridge with a tiny box of a freezer on top, and in many ways, keeping those much smaller spaces well-organized is even more important. Since we're in the part of fall that hasn't yet turned into the holiday season, it's a good time to tackle a fridge and freezer reorganization.

For starters, you have to focus on size. How big is your fridge or freezer? Do you have two drawers, three or four? Are your shelves adjustable? Is there storage on the door? Does your freezer have an ice-maker taking up room inside? The smaller your space, the more organized you are going to want to be.

Secondly, you want to think about how you cook and eat. Are you a working parent with a family of four that needs school lunches and dinner on the table every night? Are you a free-wheeling single who eats most meals out? Figuring out the essentials of what needs to be stored every day is important, because it will help you decide what goes where. For example, if you have kids who make their own lunches or grab their own snacks, you want to be sure to have what they need organized where they can easily access it.

Watch: Foods You Should Never Freeze

Finally, before you start, do an assessment of what is in your fridge that never changes, those permanent denizens that are going to want and need a logical home. For us, as an example, even if our fridge is practically bare, there will always be something. For me: a half-gallon of milk, a case of LaCroix Pamplemousse cans, eggs, butter, and a collection of condiments. 

Clean It All Out

You are going to want to do a full clean out, which includes emptying the entire fridge, and tossing any expired or compromised items out. Check expiration and best-by dates and keep a list of anything you discard in case you need to replace it later. If you have ingredients you bought for that recipe that you didn’t end up loving check in with yourself to see if you really need to keep it. If not, and if you don’t have a logical person to gift it to, just dump it and move on. Your fridge is not supposed to be a food museum, it should be a dynamic living space that empowers you to feed yourself and others efficiently and deliciously. Stash anything delicate in a cooler while you give the inside of the fridge a good cleaning.

Take It from the Top

Now, no matter what size your fridge, there is a method to what goes where. Your fridge essentially gets cooler the farther down you go, so think of a top-down mentality. The top shelf should ideally be for things that are ready-to-eat, and don’t require actual cooking, but might need a reheat. That includes things things like hummus or dips, milk, butter, yogurt, deli meats or charcuterie, cheeses, leftovers and the like. Lower shelves should be for things that will need cooking, like eggs and other ingredients.

On the bottom you will either have a lowest shelf or a drawer or two. If you have one drawer, designate it for raw meats. This will keep them safest at the lowest temp, but also will prevent any leakage of meat juice dripping on any other ingredient and cross-contaminating. If you only have a lower shelf, get a container in which to store any raw meats to prevent leakage. If you have a second drawer, feel free to use this for hardier vegetables or fruits. Delicate things like leafy greens and herbs will do better higher up, they can freeze on the bottom if your settings are off. But cabbages, carrots, cucumbers, other root veggies, and fruits like apples and citrus all do fine down there. If your drawers are stacked instead of side by side, just be sure to designate the meat drawer as the lowest drawer. And obviously, if you are vegetarian or vegan, you can designate all drawers for fruit and vegetables.

Condiments should always be kept on the door, which is the warmest place in your fridge, and this is a good place for non-dairy beverages as well.

Make Sure It Needs to Be There

Do a check to see if everything you are stashing in your fridge actually requires refrigeration! If the jar or bottle is not marked “Refrigerate after opening,” you might be taking up valuable real estate with something that can be kept safely in a cool place in a cupboard or pantry. Things like soy sauce, vinegar, hot sauces, fish sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and honey can always be kept in the pantry. If you go through your bottle of ketchup in a month or less, it is fine in the pantry, and mustard is good for two months or less. Peanut butter can be stored in the pantry as long as it isn’t fresh or “natural” since those don’t have preservatives. With all of these, use common sense. If your spouse puts ketchup on anything that is not nailed down, and you buy a bottle every other week, keep it in the pantry. If you use it exclusively for your one burger a month, and buy one bottle a year? Fridge it.

Organizational Tools Can Help

Take advantage of some organizational tools. Whether it is an acrylic egg holder, a can dispenser, or just a tub that can corral things, keeping like items together in some sort of bin can be enormously useful. It allows you to pull a large tray out and get what you need, and not have to move fifteen items to get at the stuff from the back.

Think About Your Shopping

Re-assess how you shop based on the size of your fridge and your eating habits. If you are someone who does one big grocery shop a week due to scheduling or geographical access, be sure that you are leaving as much room as possible for meats, dairy and fresh vegetables, and maybe be a bit diligent about not taking up too much room with condiments and the like. But if you have easy access to stores and/or grocery delivery services, remind yourself not to feel such pressure to load in a week’s worth of product at one time. I have tried to adopt a more European style of shopping, getting only what we need for the next day or so, which allows me to pivot if we decide to eat out, and to address in real time what we might be most interested in eating or cooking. I am throwing away far fewer wilted and melty vegetables, and no longer am cooking things in a panic before they go off. The smaller your fridge, the more this is a great way to shop.

Freezing Doesn't Mean It Lasts Forever

Your freezer should be thought of the same way. Clean out and discard anything that is older than one year, looks freezer burned, is unidentifiable, or is something you know in your heart you will never eat. Your freezer is not some magical cryogenic permanent food preserver. Things still degrade as they sit in your freezer. While it is true that as long as the food stays fully frozen with no compromised temperature it is technically safe to eat, anything in there for over six months is not really super yummy, and after a year is fundamentally flawed. Whole, uncut baked goods should be consumed in four months

If you have a side-by-side freezer, follow the same top-down theory. Baking ingredients like butter, nuts or chocolate or flours go on top along with spices and cooked breadstuffs or baked goods. Frozen doughs, vegetables, fruits and other ingredients like in the middle, raw frozen meats on the bottom. If your freezer door has storage, this can be a good place to stash items that would also be good on the top shelf, especially items that are small and can get lost. Also a good place to stash cans of juice concentrate if you use those.

Bins Are Great

I use the same acrylic bins in my freezer that I do in my fridge, to help keep like items together. This is even more important in your freezer than in your fridge, since you do not want to have your freezer door hanging open for fifteen minutes while you try to put your hands on that package of frozen spinach you just know is in there somewhere. And again, think about how you cook and eat today. Are you a person who actually remembers to thaw out a frozen meat product for tomorrow’s dinner or do you always end up buying fresh? Then don’t feel the need to stock up just because something is on sale. Meats that end up in my freezer are usually there either because I bought them and then wasn’t in the mood to cook them and needed to freeze to save them, or because they were gifted to me by a pal…some venison loin or homemade sausage or home-cured bacon. I do always keep a stash of frozen vegetables for last minute meals but try not to stock more than one package of each and replace as I use.

Don't Forget Bonus Fridges

Lastly, if you are blessed with the extra abundance of a bonus fridge in your basement or garage and/or a chest freezer, remember the following: Extra fridges are great for large families or people who entertain a lot but can accidentally be places where food goes to die. Be sure to check in on them frequently to be sure you don’t have a second bag of baby carrots shriveling to jerky in there. They are a great place to store beverages. Ditto your bonus or chest freezer. This is the place I put non-everyday things like tubs of stock, extra baked goods and baking supplies, and whole dishes for upcoming events like Thanksgiving, when my chest freezer will slowly get stocked with make-ahead items in the couple of months leading up to the holiday.

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