Updated: Feb 12
When hunger strikes, the last thing you want to do is rummage through your fridge, removing or pushing ingredients aside to get to what you need. Your kitchen should be your happy place. Many are tempted for a variety of reasons (less trips to the grocery store, large families, teenage boys, et al) to overfill the refrigerator shelves and drawers.
Organizing a fridge (and freezer for that matter) can be difficult because the items are likely to change from week to week and the size of the items is broad. It is also a challenge because so many people in the family go in and out of the refrigerator multiple times a day.
I’ve heard from many of you that refrigerator organization is a place where you struggle. So, I'm sharing my thoughts on how to organize a fridge, Neat Little Nest style, with hopes to inspire you to reconsider and try new options. I will share strategies that are working for my family as well as our Neat Little Nest clients that you can implement no matter the make or model of your appliance.
Before You Start, Clean it Out!
Before you can do any organizing, it’s best to start with a clean slate. This means taking EVERYTHING out at the same time. Scrub, wipe, and/or soak the shelves, the storage bins, the sidewalls, the sticky goop on bottles, the drip lines...you get the picture. Haven’t looked at expiration dates in a while? When you have everything out of the fridge, check the dates and toss/recycle items that are past their prime.
Placement is Key For Food Quality and Freshness
I wouldn't be surprised if you don't really know where food is best stored in the refrigerator. I hadn't really researched this until I started my new career only to find out that I was doing a lot of things in a way that wasn't optimal for my food - and potentially my health. Below are some guideline to help you optimally store your food:
Ready-to-eat foods, such as dairy products, packaged foods, leftovers, cooked meats and prepared salads should be stashed on the top or middle shelves of your fridge. These should be covered well or kept in sealed containers to prevent contamination. Placement on the upper tiers, away from raw foods (greens, veggies, fruits, etc.) limits harmful bacteria from transferring from raw to cooked food.
For leftovers, be sure to jot down the date and contents on a label, it only takes 20 seconds. Food safety is serious business, as I do not know anyone who wants food poisoning.
Raw meat, poultry and fish in sealed containers should be placed on the lower level shelves, which are typically the coolest and this placement prevents them from touching or dripping onto other foods which could cause cross-contamination.
Vegetables are best stored in a different part of the fridge than fruit. This prevents them from ripening too fast. Most vegetables, like carrots, broccoli, cabbage are best stored in a plastic bag or container designed to keep them fresh in the fridge while mushrooms are best stored in a paper bag.
Certain fruits like berries and grapes are best stored in the fridge, but please don’t wash them before you put them in! Berries - blueberries, blackberries, strawberries and raspberries are very delicate, so keep them dry and covered and wash when you’re ready to eat.
Other fruits like avocados, apples, bananas, citrus, peaches and apricots are best stored out of the fridge. Refrigerating these fruits often results in loss of flavor and texture. If you’re looking for a crisp bite on those fruits, you can chill them in the refrigerator for 30 minutes prior to eating!
Milk, cream, butter, yogurt, cheese and other dairy products are best stored on a shelf inside the fridge rather than on the door, which can be problematic. The fridge door is its warmest area and is subject to the most temperature fluctuations, so avoid storing highly perishable foods here. Unless you are going through milk and other dairy products very quickly, they would benefit from being on a shelf. Condiments and other well-preserved foods are generally fine on the door.
Organizing with Ease - 5 Steps to Success
Once you have a clean fridge and you know the ideal placement, it's time to get busy executing your vision. Below are five steps to organizing success:
Sketch it out! - First, think about your refrigerator in zones (zone defense is your best offense!), and then sketch out a plan on paper. Reflect on these questions below to begin to determine what strategies will work best for you and your family: What consistent staple items need dedicated space in the refrigerator (fruit, eggs, milk, juice, veggies, meats, etc.)? Do you have kids? If yes, do you need a kid-friendly area where they can readily grab items and go? Do you typically have leftovers that require real estate? Do you/your family like a lot of sauces, syrups, condiments, or salad dressings
Measure - Once you have a good idea of where things would best live, take a few measurements of your drawers and shelf dimensions before you go shopping!
Buy Organizing Supplies - One of the ways to tame the chaos in the fridge is to use containers to create the zones I referenced earlier. My favorite refrigerator containers are a mix of long clear bins that maximize the depth of the fridge along with food specific containers like egg bins and soda can holders. To help take the guesswork out of it, I’ve curated my favorite refrigerator bins here. For those of you with a decent sized deli drawer, it can be both a blessing and a curse with everything floating around - so grab some of these clear trays to keep cheese sticks together or yogurt cups upright.
Execute your vision - Here’s what you’ve been working toward - bringing your organizational vision to life. Put your bins into the spots that make best use for you and your family. Pro tip: buy a few extra bins to give you options while you’re finalizing your vision.
Label, label, label! - Once everything finds its place, be sure to label your bins for way finding. It helps guide you and your family to where things go, no guessing involved! If you prefer, you can use an erasable pen to write directly on the bins.
The Way Forward - Strategies To Keep it Tidy
There are three big strategies that can help you keep your fridge tidy, which are meal planning, frequency of shopping and unpacking your groceries.
Meal Planning 101 - For me and my busy family, meal planning is essential for us to run an efficient kitchen. I’m a big fan of weekly meal planning and food shopping. A week is a long enough time frame to give your family a good roadmap to follow, but doesn’t require you to think of what you want to eat four Friday’s from today, which bulk shopping can require. If you're looking for a tool to help you plan the week, check out the Neat Little Nest weekly planner here.
Consider Your Grocery Shopping Frequency - Consider what type of shopping is best for your family (weekly, monthly, etc.) as that indulgent trip to Costco can be more wasteful than you think. If you are buying in bulk and not eating it, you are really not getting the deal you think you are. For us, grocery shop weekly works best.
Unpack for Success - Decant items when you put away your groceries, which means to take items out of their store containers (eg. eggs into a clear storage bin made for eggs or cardboard wraps around the hummus tub). The reason to do this is because the more packaging you remove on the day you unpack, the less you'll find laying around on the counter throughout the week.
Progress over perfection
Remember, there isn’t a “perfect” method for organizing a refrigerator. People have different food preferences and space needs and no two refrigerators are exactly alike. It takes a bit of trial and error to come up with a system that works specifically for you and your family. In general, though, I believe following some of these Neat Little Nest suggestions and giving everything its own place in your fridge, can bring you much more joy than it probably does now.