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How to Organize a Refrigerator

September 19, 2017

We've been on a bit of an organizing kick lately, tidying up Kondo-style and making sure to maximize every inch of space. But somehow, we’ve yet to address one of the most critical spaces in our homes: the refrigerator.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

It’s arguably one of the most important appliances we own (aside from the oven and the coffee maker). We spend who knows how many hours opening and closing it, rifling through it, and simply standing in front of it. It holds both meaty mains and the vegetable makings of super salads. And yet, so many of us neglect it.

Over on the Hotline, LE BEC FIN is in search of the best practices to follow when cleaning out our refrigerators. How do we keep door storage from hosting a minefield of mostly-used marmalade? And what about that hodge-podge of leftover meals dominating prime, eye-level shelf space? We may be crippled by the current state of our crispers, but we don’t have to be.

Use or freeze perishables

  • While no one offered a clear, universal rule for how long to keep one item or another, Nancy recommends only keeping perishable items (like cooked foods and open ingredients) between three and seven days, at which point it's time to cook it, serve it, or freeze it. She even stores some things—like nuts, dried fruits, and uncooked meat or fish—in the freezer right from the get-go.

  • Stacy agrees that the freezer is most definitely your friend when faced with perishing produce. It's a-okay for onions, carrots, and celery to go in the freezer (even if they're getting wilty) for future use in stocks or soups.

  • Lyndie keeps a large ziplock in the freezer just for vegetables headed passed their prime (and vegetable trimmings) for just that reason, taking it a step further by dedicating a second one for stock-worthy chicken bones.

Photo by Alpha Smoot

Deal with the dregs

  • Mstv tries to incorporate leftover odds and ends into one overarching dish like a casserole or soup.

  • Lyndie, too, plans dinners designed to use up random leftovers: "kitchen sink" soup, burritos, or grain bowls.

  • On another note, Antonia James addresses what to do with the teaspoon or two of remnants inevitably inhabiting the bottom of condiment jars. She combines the remains of complimentary products to create new spreads—like pickled plums and​ coarse-grain mustard—and uses the leftover brine from pickles to make a salad dressing, "often with a dab of whatever jam is down to dregs."

Photo by James Ransom

Label everything

  • Mark Denner is all about using a Sharpie and white electrical tape to label leftovers in reusable containers with names and dates. He also organizes the fridge by designating areas for different goods so he always knows where to find what he's looking for, and reminds us that it's often possible to adjust shelf heights to accommodate​ different storage containers as needed.

  • Ktr is also into labels, but sticks with colored masking tape, freezer tape, or dissolving labels instead.

Most importantly, get rid of what you don't need

  • Chef June regularly donates or shares unwanted (but still good) bottled or boxed items with neighbors.

  • Mark Denner makes another great point, saying, "the more food you'll never eat that clutters your fridge and pantry, the less likely you are to be able to make use of the stuff you WILL eat. Also, if your fridge is neat and clean and full of stuff you WANT to cook with, you're more likely to cook in general." His solution? Just get rid of it: "Not labeled? Toss it. No clue what it is? Toss it. Don't have a plan for something? Toss it. Ever so slightly dodgy? Toss it. Fridge overflowing? Be merciless."

What are your best tips for making (and maintaining) an orderly fridge? Let us know in the comments!

This post was originally published in January 2016.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Nancy
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Sarah E Daniels

Written by: Sarah E Daniels

It's mostly a matter of yeast.


Nancy October 17, 2017
I don't want to be encouraging throwing out good food.
In the original thread I overstated (and so was so quoted) how I keep certain foods only 3-7 days. It's really only perishables - produce, meat or fish, cooked dishes.
"Opened things" like cheeses and commercial sauces that have longer fridge life or preservatives stay for appropriate times (weeks, months up to two years).
Maggie September 25, 2017
I never have an excess of anything in my fridge. I shop as the Europeans do, each day for what I need immediately. Natural nut butters, butter, and homemade jams, along with homemade dressings are in the door compartment. Juices and almond milks on the lower shelf. Produce in their respective crisper drawers. In the freezer live the seasonal berries I've picked locally, as well as over-ripe bananas for use in smoothies. I organize myself by placing items to be eaten today on the top shelf so I see them right away, and nothing gets looked over in terms of wilting veggies or ripening fruit :)
June September 19, 2017
I use a Sharpie to write days/dates on the tops of containers (like Gladware), then use nail polish remover to remove, then toss in the dishwasher. Haven't tried this with other types of containers, such as Tupperware or Lock n Lock...but works great without the expense or bother or expense of tape.
Maggie September 25, 2017
I <3 Sharpies. Give me an excuse to use them lol
BerryBaby September 19, 2017
I 'think' before I buy. Far too much food was getting wasted over the years so I came up with questioning myself before buying.
Really helps keep the fridge filled with only things we use often. I clean the vegetable bins every Sunday and take inventory of what needs to purchased for the week. Takes only minutes.
monica_m June 27, 2016
I bought some divided plate storage containers a while back, and now I pack my leftovers from dinner as complete-ish reheat able meals. They can go in the fridge for a super easy grab and go lunch or dinner. If I'm not going to be eating them in the next day or two, into the freezer they go!
Brenda March 20, 2016
In order to keep the big basket in the freezer organized, I use 3 reusable cloth type shopping bags from the supermarket. I put them side by side and then sort my freezer basket contents into 3 categories; vegetables, potatoes and proteins. Because the bags are moldable, they fit together perfectly and make it easier to find what I want. The upper shelf is used for miscellaneous items like ice cream, chocolate chips, nuts, and things that come in smaller packages. I have a rectangular plastic container with holes on the side from the dollar store to contain small items.
Miriam March 15, 2016
I bought plastic clear bins with flat lids and use those for vegs - I can see what's in them, they're at eye-height and I use my crisper to hold bottled and canned beverages. Also Ieftovers go into glasslock (love 'em) containers and labeled with a permanent sharpie (it washes off with dish soap when the container is empty so no labels needed). I also date all leftovers so I don't forget how long it's been there. Friday is stir-fry night to use up leftover fresh produce.
CookOnTheFly January 19, 2016
I signed up for The Fresh 20 grocery/eating plan as suggested by Food52 a few years ago. No waste, I plan, shop and prep ahead of time and what's in the fridge is what there is to eat for a week. If I have leftover veggies or roast an organic chicken then I too save some items in the freezer for stock later on. I love how the fridge is no longer a mystery to me!
Michelle January 19, 2016
I line all my shelves and drawers with those thin, plastic cutting boards. Super slick for cleaning.
Atlanta G. January 19, 2016
I have a small dry erase board on fridge where I can note if I am running low on items. I also note the veggies I got at the farmer's mkt - as a reminder of what I have.
I take a pic when heading out to stock up so no need to make a list.
Sarah E. January 19, 2016
Great idea!
Jessica B. January 21, 2016