Declutter Your Refrigerator

When is the last time you set out to declutter your refrigerator? Does the thought of it fill you with trepidation?

We’ve probably all experienced something like what I'm about to describe - whether or not we’d like to admit it.

You decide to clean out the refrigerator (or you are compelled to by a disturbing odor emanating from somewhere within). You start pulling out containers to examine their contents. What do you find?

It may be hard to say for sure if the appearance of the contents has been altered significantly through the passage of time.

While the green, fuzzy whatever-it-was may be perfect for a science fair project, it isn’t good for you or your refrigerator.

An afternoon spent seeking to declutter your refrigerator may be on your list of projects you prefer to put off (it’s on mine), but it’s actually not a good idea to do so. An unclean, cluttered refrigerator can promote bacterial growth and cause food to spoil more quickly. Proper air circulation is essential for keeping food cold and fresh.

things aren't as they seem

An unorganized fridge often appears fuller than it is. This fridge (above) looks as though it is bursting at the seams with some items even hanging off the edge of the shelf precariously.

We'll find, however, that there is actually plenty of space available when utilized effectively.

Notice that like items are spread all over the place with produce on nearly every shelf and eggs in two locations. This fridge is in need of some serious consolidating!

Tip: Save space and keep restaurant leftovers fresh by transferring them to an air tight storage container when you get home.

The good news is that it isn't hard to declutter your refrigerator, and it doesn't actually take that much time. In addition, regular maintenance can keep it clean and clutter-free with limited effort.

The first step is to purge! To purge is to rid of whatever is impure or undesirable.  Fitting, don't your think?

Part of purging includes cleaning. Here are some simple steps to get you started:

Remove the Food

The best way to clear the clutter from your refrigerator is to remove the contents and reassemble them in a more orderly fashion - after you've purged them.

As you pull items from the fridge, check their expiration date. Toss anything that is past its prime. This includes condiments which can sometimes sit open inside the refrigerator indefinitely. Just because something is 2/3 full, doesn't mean it should go back in the fridge. If it's expired, throw it out.

It's tempting to combine multiples of the same thing when you come across them. Before doing so, check expiration dates. You don't want to mix 2-year-old ketchup with 2-week-old ketchup. Throw the old stuff out.

We often think that because our food is cold, it’s safe, but even food kept in the refrigerator goes bad over time – remember the green fuzz? Don’t wait for food to look bad – chances are it is bad long before it shows obvious signs of spoiling.

Understanding Expiration dates

“Best before” dates apply only to foods that are unopened. Once a container is opened, the contents will deteriorate much faster, even in the refrigerator. When you open a container, write the date on it. Then you can easily tell how long it’s been open and whether or not it’s safe to keep.

Leftovers are best used within 4 days. Anything older than that should be tossed out as well. If you don't think you can eat leftovers within the time limit, consider freezing them for a quick dinner when you're in a hurry or low on groceries.

how to store leftovers

When storing leftovers, it’s better to separate large amounts into multiple smaller containers. Here’s why:

  • Large quantities cool more slowly and are therefore more at risk from bacteria.
  • Smaller quantities are easier to reheat. Constantly reheating food and then re-cooling a portion of it because you've heated more than you can eat invites bacteria.
  • Storing leftovers in individual serving sizes makes them more likely to be eaten, and who wants to see all that good food go to waste?

Place any food you intend to return to the refrigerator in a cooler to keep it cold while you do your thing. It isn't necessary to fill the cooler with ice. It’s insulated and will keep things cool for the short time that it takes you to clean out the fridge.

Now pat yourself on the back. You've already made excellent progress in your goal to declutter your refrigerator.

remove shelves and drawers

If your shelves or drawers are made of glass, you'll need to set them aside and allow them to warm up gradually to room temperature before you clean them. This will prevent them from cracking. Metal or plastic pieces can be cleaned right away.

While you're waiting for the shelves to thaw out, move on to step three.

Note: I have found that it's easier and faster to clean the refrigerator thoroughly when I pull out the shelves and drawers and wash them separately as you see here. It gives me easy access to both the interior of the fridge and the drawers and shelves.

Tip: While the shelves and drawers are removed, check to see if any light bulbs are burned out and replace them.

clean the inside of the refrigerator

You’re going to want multiple cleaning cloths for this project, so make sure you've got a stack handy. Using warm water and a little dish soap, start at the top and work your way down. This will prevent dripping on areas you've already cleaned. Be thorough, especially at the bottom back of the refrigerator where spills go to hide – you know, back behind the crisper drawers.

When you’re finished with the interior, you’re ready to do the doors. I recommend a toothbrush for getting gunk out of the crevices between the door and the shelves.

Another area that will need your attention is the seals. Those little creases are crumb magnets. A toothbrush comes in handy here as well. Be sure to dry the area when you’re done.

If it’s been an especially long time since you tackled this job or your fridge is particularly grubby, be sure to change your cleaning water and cloths as needed.

When you’re all done, take a clean, dry towel and dry off the interior. Excess moisture will not be welcome once everything is back in the fridge and the door is closed. There is nowhere for it to go, so get rid of it before you put things back.

Tip: To remove dried spills place a warm, wet cloth over the spill and let it set for several minutes to soften whatever it is (or was). Scrape off the softened goo with a nylon scraper and then wipe the surface clean with a fresh cloth that’s been dipped in warm, soapy water and thoroughly rung out.

clean the shelves and the drawers

By the time you finish cleaning inside the refrigerator your shelves and drawers should be warmed up and ready for a good cleaning of their own. Use fresh, mildly soapy water to scrub them, and then rinse thoroughly. Once clean, dry the shelves and drawers completely before returning them to the fridge.

I like to place a clean paper towel – actually two folded back on one another – in the bottom of the crisper drawers to absorb excess moisture and prevent any decaying produce from leaving its mark on the bottom of the crisper. Replace the paper towels periodically to keep things fresh, clean, and odor free.

wipe off the exterior

Cleaning off the exterior is an important step in the quest to declutter your refrigerator.

Remove everything that is attached to the exterior – magnets, take-out menus, expired invitations and notices, curled up art work, faded photos, etc. Sort through the stack and discard anything that is out of date or looking tattered.

I would encourage you to be Spartan in your approach to hanging things on your refrigerator – in other words, limit what you put there. I know it’s tempting to tack everything of importance to the front of the fridge, but before long it all becomes a jumble and you lose track of the truly important things.

A cluttered fridge exterior is like an unmade bed; it leaves the whole room feeling undone. Whereas, a clear fridge exterior, all gleaming white or silver, can give the kitchen a neat, tidy feel.

After purging the fridge’s exterior gallery, you’re ready to wipe it down. A damp cloth dipped in a mildly soapy solution (water and a smidgen of dish liquid) will be just the thing to remove all those sticky finger prints and smudges. If you've got a stainless steel refrigerator, consult your instruction manual for the best method of cleaning the exterior.

put everything back

If your refrigerator shelves are adjustable, take a moment to plan what you want to go where and place your shelves accordingly.

As you replace each item, be sure it’s clean. Wipe off any sticky containers or gummed up lids.

Now that this herculean appliance is clean and its contents properly purged, you’re 2/3 of the way there in your mission to declutter your refrigerator. You’re ready to move on to the next step: organizing your refrigerator.

Click here to return to Declutter Your Kitchen.

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