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How to Clean a Messy Refrigerator

Use these easy tips to clean out your messy refrigerator and then keep it clean with a couple simple habits each week. No more messy fridge or wasted food!

Since the people living in our homes are constantly eating, it seems like the fridge should be in a constant state of being emptied of old items and occasionally filled up with new ones, so it would always stay clean and organized. Am I right!?

Unfortunately, the world doesn’t work that way.

In the real world, good food gets forgotten, turns bad, and then conspires to hide all the other food we might actually want to eat (if we could even find it). Seriously, I think it’s some sort of conspiracy set up by moldy cheese and two-week-old mashed potatoes.

A woman smiling and reaching into the refrigerator with the words "how to clean a messy fridge"

It would be nice if we would simply toss out the old block of cheese and dish of mashed potatoes before they have time to turn gross and stage a coup. Instead, it’s much easier to leave that outdated food right where it is on the second shelf, just in case someone else wants it later.

Because someone is totally going to eat that nasty old food.

Umm…probably not.

That whole leave-it-in-the-fridge-just-in-case method of managing the refrigerator doesn’t really work.  I’ve tried it.  A lot.

There’s a better way, and it’s pretty simple:

  1. Start with a clean refrigerator.
  2. Each time you open the refrigerator, throw away anything you see that you know won’t be eaten.
  3. Intentionally throw away outdated food and make a plan for using up soon-to-be-outdated items before you restock the fridge each week.

See?  It’s not rocket science.  It’s just refrigerator science. Actually, it’s a simple plan for avoiding refrigerator science (yuck!).

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Prepping the Kitchen to Clean a Messy Refrigerator

Be sure the dishes are washed.

You need the sink to be ready for the dishes you’ll find hiding in the fridge that can’t go in the dishwasher.  Plus, you won’t want to wash anything extra after you’re done cleaning. Take a few minutes to wash up any dirty dishes and get them put away.

Be sure the dishwasher (if you have one) is fairly empty.

You need room for the containers from the expired leftover you’re going to throw away. If you don’t have a dishwasher, then fill the sink with soapy water so you can quickly dump the dirty dishes in before the smell of spoiled food sends you running.

Be sure you have a clear countertop.

You need an area to unload the refrigerator shelves while you’re sorting and scrubbing. Have some clean counter space near the fridge where you can easily unload the contents of the refrigerator as you move from shelf to shelf.

Be sure the trash can has plenty of room.

You need an almost-empty trash bag ready for quickly dumping outdated and yucky food, and you do NOT want to stop in the middle of the job to run the full bag out to the garage. Trust me on this one.

Be sure to have a large bowl of soapy water and a sponge ready.

You’ll appreciate having your water close to your work (instead of in the sink). Fill a large bowl with soap and water, and you can also sprinkle in a little baking soda, if you want.

Be sure you’re prepared to toss food you paid good money for.

This one is more about mental preparation than kitchen prep.  You are going to throw away food you had high hopes for but nobody wanted to eat. Just trash it and move on with life. Give yourself permission to toss without guilt.

A little girl holding an apple and some carrots and smiling in front of an open refrigerator

How to Clean a Messy Refrigerator

1. Empty one shelf or section at a time onto the countertop.

Beginning with the door, work your way down from the top, putting the contents of the fridge onto the counter so you can wash each shelf or drawer. Only unload one area at a time and finish sorting and cleaning before you move on, so you aren’t creating a new disaster area while trying to clean.

2. Look at every single item you remove.

Check for expiration dates and toss anything that is past its prime. Also think if anyone will ever use the product. Seriously, do not keep food that nobody will eat! That’s called clutter. You don’t need despised condiments, gross salad dressings, or mushy pickles cluttering your fridge.

3. Wash the shelf with soapy water, and load the “keepers” back in.

Also, as you’re loading the food back in, be on the lookout for things that can go in the door or can safely be stored behind things that are more perishable. Also look for ways to group things together so they’re easy to find (and hard to lose). For example, keep all the leftovers together on one shelf, meat and lunchmeat grouped together, and fruit and veggies on their own shelf or in a drawer.

4. Use it up or toss it out.

If something isn’t quite ready for the trash can, but isn’t going to last much longer, think about how you can use up.  Cut up the cheese into cubes for the kids’ snack boxes and chop up the veggies so they’re ready to grab and eat whenever anyone is “starving to death.”

5. Clean out the fridge a little every day and a lot once a week.

Make a habit of cleaning out expired food as you go throughout the week.  If you start to grab a carton of leftovers, but think it might be spoiled, you should probably go ahead and trash it. Same thing for produce, dairy, and anything else that isn’t going to be eaten.

Then once a week, before you make your new meal plan, do a quick clean of the refrigerator. You won’t necessarily need to do a detailed clean-and-wash each time, but a quick look-and-toss will keep the chore from getting out of control and help you save money by using up what you already own instead of adding more items to your grocery list.

Don’t Put It Off

Cleaning out a messy refrigerator is one of those chores that seems worth avoiding, but there are so many reasons why it’s good to go ahead and do it now.

Mess and clutter in the refrigerator gets in the way of every member of your household…well, every member who is old enough to open the door.  It slows down meal prep and wastes your hard-earned money. And it’s just generally annoying!

On the flip side, having a clean fridge is like a little gleam of sunshine every time you open the door. Sounds corny, but give it a try and see if you don’t smile several times a day when you look at those shiny shelves. It’s a beautiful thing!

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Subscribe to SMALL DOSE DECLUTTERING and get simple tips every week to turn your house into the uncluttered home you didn’t know was possible…and it’s 100% FREEEEE!

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4 Comments

  1. Thanks for these simple steps, you are right I do enjoy looking into a clean fridge!

  2. I completely agree with your point about cleaning out expired food throughout the week. I have a roommate who tends to leave her food in the refrigerator for weeks. She tends to forget about it, and so I’m helping her to label sticky notes with the date that she cooked or bought the food on each. This way, it’ll be easier for her to know what food should be thrown out throughout the week.

    1. That’s a great idea! Whenever possible, I use zipper bags that I can write on for many of our our leftovers so I can mark the date. Helps a lot! 🙂

  3. I’m a big believer in two points you mentioned – clean out the fridge a little every day and use it up or toss it. Especially when it comes to fruits and veggies that don’t last long, If i see one piece that is starting to spoil I know I only have a day or two before the entire thing has to be tossed. Also, cleaning a little everyday doesn’t mean scrubbing the entire fridge down, I literally just take a cloth and wipe off anything that spilled or leaked. That’s it. Thanks for the tips.

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