Ask Mary

How to: clean and organize your refrigerator

refrigeratorLos Angeles,Your fridge is the safety and health zone of your kitchen, protecting food quality and freshness is a priority for your family. You shouldn’t have to worry about getting food poisoning from products you put in your refrigerator, right?! So, what is the best way to keep your refrigerator filled with edible food?

The obvious answer is: Clean out your refrigerator regularly, but there is more to it than that.

Make sure you clean out the dark corners, and throw out the ketchup bottle that has been hiding since 2002. Although, refrigeration allows products to remain fresh for longer than if they stayed in the kitchen cabinets, everything has an expiration date and it’s your job to keep you and your family safe from the food borne illness that could lie within.

Unfortunately, many people are lax about cleaning their refrigerator, and in the bustle of everyday life will grab a condiment from the fridge, spread it between two pieces of bread, and end up with an upset stomach, and no idea why.

First, have a plan, create a date and throw out old food based onthe obvious- throw out anything questionable, label-less condiments and anything moldy. Begin with a good recycle bin, a new trash bag and a bag for compost (if you compost).

Second, clean out your jars, cans, bottles and anything else that has expired dates. Products that seem to be good forever, such as ketchup, mustard and hot sauce, expire just like everything else.  Check everything by look, smell, taste and date, and throw away any item that you’re not willing to run these tests on. It’s so easy for a fridge to become over crowded with old food.  For instance I am always guilty of opening a box of chicken stock, use half of it, and then place the rest back in the fridge for another day.  Later, I buy groceries, and the chicken stock makes its way to the back of the fridge, hidden behind fruits, vegetables, and often I’ll open another jar of chicken stock not realizing there’s already an open one.

Pretty soon half-used jars of chicken stock crowd the back of my fridge, and I have no idea which one is new. Thankfully, my nose and taste buds are highly trained. With a quick sniff and a small taste, I can typically tell if it should stay or go.  However, refining my taste buds and nose took years of smelling and tasting both old and new foods, and identifying the new jar from the old can be tricky for the average Joe. So for those of you who aren’t willing to test your multiples get in a habit of organizing your similar opened products in a FIFO (First In First Out) order. The oldest date goes to the back and the newest to the front of the refrigerator. Then when you go to grab you’ll grab the one that should be used first.

Third, time to decipher coding on products and whether or not it’s time to throw them out. Did you know that an expiration date on food is voluntary except for infant formula? Isn’t that crazy! You have to be a smart consumer when it comes to food expiration.

Coding is put on the canned and jarred items for the companies that make the product and not for the consumer. Sometimes the code will look similar to a date, but in most cases coding has no similarities to a date and is a series of numbers and letters. The truth is, if what you have in your refrigerator has a code on it and you don’t remember when you opened it, it might be best to throw it out. Most canned and jarred items like pickles, red peppers, olives, etc. will be good for up to two weeks after opening the jar. While other items like ketchup, mustard and other condiment type ingredients will be good for up to two months.

After you’ve cleaned out your refrigerator, it’s time to restock it with fresh products. Remember to buy only what you need, so you don’t overstock your refrigerator.  Shop for fresh ingredients every three or four days, and monthly for canned and jarred items.  It may make it easier to buy your canned foods on a day when you’re not in a rush, that way you don’t miss anything and you can really figure out what you need to buy.

Take note:Pay attention to items that you don’t finish, and make a note of it so that next time you shop; you can buy smaller portions to save money and space, and prevent waste. Remember that throwing away food is really throwing away money. Once you bring your groceries home, store and label them properly so you maintain good health. Labeling can be done simply by writing an open date on the item and make sure to do this with a sharpie when the jar is at room temperature. If the jar or container is cold the ink won’t stay on the vessel.

Organize like the professionals: In the restaurant world, professional chefs always take a roll of masking tape and a sharpie into the walk-in refrigerator, to label everything according to the contents, the made date, and the throw away date so everyone knows exactly what’s going on in the refrigerator.

Label like professionals: Learn from the pros, and apply this system to your home. Label jars with masking tape, and write the date you opened it and the date you should throw it away. With the food clearly marked, every time you open the refrigerator, you know to cook it, eat it or if you need to get rid of it.

Organizing your refrigerator:

Keeping foods separated by category is very important for saving space, and making sure that old food does not lurk in corners for months on end. Begin at the bottom of the refrigerator, and work your way up. Place uncooked meats at the bottom of the refrigerator, because juices tend to leak from the packaging, and you definitely don’t want meat juice tainting the rest of your food. Place raw vegetables one level above meats, and separate from ready to eat food, because uncooked vegetables attract bacteria. Reserve your top level for cooked foods and cheeses so that you can grab them easily. Blocks of cheese are best wrapped in parchment paper and then placed into a plastic bag or plastic wrap. Put liquids in the door or close to the bottom of the refrigerator, so that they won’t ruin the rest of your delicious food if they leak. Fill out the door with eggs and butter, which are not as sensitive to the warmer air outside as other food like milk or cream.

  • Some foods have special storage requirements, and following these tips will help you keep your food fresh and delicious.
  • Mushrooms need to breathe so try keeping those in a brown paper bag.
  • Store Greens (lettuce and herbs) in damp paper towels, to preserve their freshness.
  • Keep milk, cream, and half and half in the back of the refrigerator; they are extremely sensitive to the warm temperatures outside of the refrigerator, and will expire faster with frequent exposure.
  • Bread should be kept in the refrigerator. Many people store it in the pantry or in a breadbox, but you really should keep them in the refrigerator to increase their shelf life. In fact, you can even keep bread in the freezer, and it will last for up to eight months if tightly wrapped.
  • Multiple items: If for some reason you open multiples of something, arrange them so that the one with the closest expiration date is in the front, and the one farthest from expiration is in the back. That way, if you reach for a jar in a hurry you’ll grab the one that expires first, making it more likely you will not waste food or money.
  • Make your kitchen a place you feel comfortable. Start your refrigerator off on the right foot with labels, organization and safe food, and maintain your kitchen’s cleanliness and comfort by tossing out any food that you feel may be unsafe.
  • Chef Mary Note: If you have the luxury of designing your kitchen, do not put the refrigerator next to the stove/oven.  The high temperatures will raise the temperatures inside the refrigerator, putting your food at risk.

I’d love to know what are your favorite tricks to keeping a refrigerator clean and organized?