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In a perfect world, the refrigerator would always be clean. Always.
But we don’t live in a perfect world.
Since the people living in our homes are constantly eating (amen?), it seems like the fridge should be in a constant state of being emptied of old items and occasionally filled up with new ones.
If only that were true…
Unfortunately, in this real world, we let good food turn bad and then grow a mind of its own and hide the good food from our view. It’s some sort of conspiracy set up by the moldy cheese and two-week-old mashed potatoes. At least that’s what I think.
The very best way to keep the refrigerator clean is to toss out the cheese and mashed potatoes before they have time to stage a coup. If we throw away food that we know isn’t going to be eaten whenever we happen to see it, the fridge will naturally stay much cleaner.
My usual tendency, on the other hand, is to see the dish of leftover chicken on the shelf, realize that it is just barely too old for me to feel comfortable serving (I’m funny about any food that might possibly be past its prime), and leave it there just in case someone else wants to eat it.
So someone else might consume the food that could be spoiled? Seriously? Will it get better with age? Is it somehow less of a waste as time goes on?
The whole leave-it-in-the-fridge-until-it-takes-on-a-life-of-its-own method of managing the refrigerator doesn’t really work. I’ve tried it. A lot.
There really is a better way, and it’s pretty simple:
- Start with a clean refrigerator.
- Each time you open the refrigerator, throw away anything you see that you know won’t be eaten.
- Before restocking the refrigerator, about once a week, intentionally throw away outdated items and make a plan for using up soon-to-be-outdated items.
See? It’s not rocket science. It’s just refrigerator science…actually, it’s a simple plan for avoiding refrigerator science (yuck!).
So, let’s get started on our way to an always-clean refrigerator. The best way to begin is with a completely clean and shiny fridge. And the best way to do that is to start with a relatively clean kitchen.
Prepping the Kitchen for Cleaning the 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.
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 spoiled food smell sends you running.
Be sure you have a clear countertop.
You need space to unload the refrigerator shelves while you’re sorting and scrubbing. Have a counter area near the fridge where you can easily load and unload the contents of the fridge 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). You can sprinkle a little baking soda in it, too, if you want.
Be sure you’re prepared to throw away 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, and you need to be prepared for that.
Just suck it up and do the job that needs done. Throw it away and move on with life. Give yourself permission to toss without guilt.
How to Clean the Refrigerator
1. Empty one shelf or section at a time onto the free countertop.
Beginning with the door and then working your way down from the top, put the contents of the fridge onto the counter so you can wash each shelf or drawer. By only unloading one area at a time, you aren’t creating a new disaster area while trying to clean up a different one.
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, don’t keep food that nobody will eat! That’s called clutter, and 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.
Consolidate and use your space as wisely as possible. Be on the lookout for things that could go in the door instead of on an interior shelf, or could safely be stored behind things that are more perishable.
Also, as you’re loading the food back in, think about how you can group items together in a way that will prevent them from getting lost in the great abyss in the back of the fridge. For example, consider keeping all your leftovers on one shelf (as much as possible) so you don’t have to go searching when someone wants to eat last night’s dinner for today’s snack.
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, “No, I don’t know if it’s still good,” you should probably go ahead and trash it.
Then once a week, before you make your new menu 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.
What are you waiting for?
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.
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.
Cleaning the fridge is one of those chores that seems worth avoiding, but is actually so simple and satisfying that it’s worth doing right now!