I don’t have the prettiest of refrigerators. It is old, white (more like cream at this point), noisy, and inconvenient—standard New York City rental fridge. I spend hours dreaming of having a kitchen with a spanking new, stainless steel, French-door version. Ice-maker, wine chiller, giant freezer and all…(Hey, at least I’m not asking for a built-in camera!)
Until such a time manifests though, the one thing that I do have is a pretty organized refrigerator. I mean, you could surprise me with a visit, walk straight up the fridge, open it—and not recoil in horror. In fact, you might even remark on how clean it is, how easily you can find the labeled leftovers, the condiments, and how tidily the herbs are stored.
The reason for all the effort I put into keeping my refrigerator organized is that I really can’t cook in a kitchen that’s less than spotless—countertop, stove, cutting board and all. That quest for tidiness has prompted me to pick up a few tips and tricks along the way. Not just for organizing my fridge but making everything in it last that much longer, and stay that much fresher. Here are some of them that have worked for me.
1. Label Everything
This may be a tried-and-true organization tool for some, but if you’re not already doing it, a roll of blue painter’s tape and a sharpie can transform the way you cook—I picked this one up from Food52-er Mark Denner on this Hotline thread. Whether you’re packing up leftovers in a food storage container, tossing cut veggies in a zip-top bag, or wrapping a wedge of cheese in wax paper, make sure you whip out a label and write both the name of what it is and the date of storage. You’ll know what’s been in the fridge longest, and therefore prioritize what needs to consumed first, as well as what you possibly need to stock up on (and not) the next time you make a trip to the store.
2. Separate Certain Fruits and Vegetables
The majority of your vegetables can be stored in perforated plastic bags and kept in your fridge’s crisper drawer, according to former Food52 managing editor Brette Warshaw in Smart Storage. But you’ll want to keep them away (like in a bowl on your fridge’s shelf) from ethylene-producing fruits. The reason behind this is that these will make your other veggies decompose faster. These include: apples, stone fruits, mangoes, passion fruit, pears, and kiwis.
Fruits and veggies that are particularly sensitive to ethylene include broccoli, carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, eggplant, and avocados. But on the flip side, you can harness the power of that ethylene to ripen something—like a hard-as-a-rock avocado—more quickly. For something like mushrooms, the Kitchn recommends you keep the grocery store variety in its original packaging in the fridge; once you open them, wrap the whole package in plastic wrap for optimal freshness.
3. Treat Soft Herbs Like a Bouquet of Flowers
If I could count the number of times I’ve bought fresh cilantro, and watched as its leaves went yellow and then brown! It’s usually at that point that I jump in (I’m working on it!) and try desperately to save the handful that are still half-green. To avoid this, former Food52 writer Lisa Kolb suggests treating soft, leafy herbs (like basil, cilantro, parsley, or tarragon) as if they were fresh-cut flowers in The Best Way to Store Fresh Herbs. Simply trim a small amount off the stems and place the bunch in a glass or Mason jar filled with water. Cover loosely with a plastic bag and store in the middle shelf of the fridge—they’ll last for at least a week. And also look pretty in the bargain.
4. Give pantry products a new home
I’m going to let you in on something that took me by total surprise: There are a number of items that you currently store on the shelves of your pantry that would fare much much better in your refrigerator. I’m talking soy sauce, maple syrup, organic nut butters, soy and nut milks, and whole-grain and nut flours, just to name a few. The one that surprised me most? Yeast. Yes, yeast is actually best stored in a chilly environment, like the condiment shelf in your fridge, according to this Food52 Hotline thread. The reason for this is that yeast is easily destroyed upon exposure to light and heat. For longer-term storage, you can even keep yeast (in an airtight container) in your freezer, where it’ll last for up to a few months.
5. Let eggs and dairy chill out
For the longest time, I believed that dairy—milk, cream, eggs, and cheese should be stored on the inside door of the fridge. Turns out that’s not the best idea. Products like these belong in a spot with a constant cold temperature, like the top shelf of your fridge, so they don’t spoil. Storing them here also makes them easier to grab when you’re rushing to put together breakfast before heading out the door.
6. Give your lemons and limes a drink of water to last longer
Contrary to common practice (even I’m guilty of this), the countertop is no place for your lemons and limes to live, according to former Food52 staff writer Valerio Farris. They’ll last much longer—up to a month!—if you store them in your refrigerator, sealed in a plastic bag that’s filled with a little bit of water. The logic: Lemons and limes (and other citrus) are super porous, so they’ll dry out more quickly when left out in the open air.
7. Meat and fish belong at the bottom
The bottom drawer is typically the coldest part of the fridge, so this is where you should keep any uncooked meat or fish products, explains Warshaw. In fact, you could even consider storing your meat in a crisper drawer to keep it away from other foods and prevent cross-contamination. You can remove the original packaging and wrap them in foil to extend the shelf life slightly, but typically, you should use them up within four days of purchase.
8. Store and arrange items according to what other items they go with
This might seem like a well-duh tip, but you’d be surprised how many people toss things into their fridge with wild abandon. The next time you’re cleaning out your fridge (or stocking it with a fresh set of groceries), take a look at things that go together. I always keep my peanut butter and jelly, eggs and milk, and deli meats and cheeses all side by side for convenience. Think about your daily eating habits and find the pairings you reach for most often! The less time I spend hunting around my fridge and making things topple (and spill), the happier I am, so this makes complete sense.
9. Bonus tip: For untouched cakes, frosting acts as a seal
Many frosted cakes can be stored at room temperature, but there are a few exceptions: if it’s hot and humid; or if the frosting is made using cream cheese. In both scenarios, you can store the unwrapped, frosted cake in the fridge for a few days, according to food blogger Stacie Billis. The frosting makes a seal that keeps the cake from drying out, so you won’t need to wrap it in plastic wrap and ruin your beautiful icing work.
10. Line Shelves and Drawers
We can all admit that our refrigerators have a tendency to get a little messy, right? Sometimes it’s just too exhausting after a full night of cooking dinner and doing all the dishes to also wipe down the shelves in the fridge. Drips of opened drinks, drops of jam, crumbs from a poorly-wrapped pastry, they love to linger. The best (and easiest) way to combat this problem is to line the drawers and shelves with a heavy-duty, water-resistant liner that wipes up easily and can be removed for deep cleaning. One like this that has ridges is ideal because it will allow airflow above and below, preventing mold or mildew from any pooling liquids.
11. Make Use of Baskets and Bins
Home Editorial Lead Arati Menon was fed up with parting ways with “condiments, chutneys, and spreads, teeny containers of takeaway sauces, and mason jars of pickled veggies” from a lack of fridge organization. She’s probably the ultimate when it comes to keeping things clean, but losing track of items within the fridge was plaguing her, so she turned to a storage solution she’d employed time and again in other parts of her home, but hadn’t thought of using in the fridge: bins. “If it’s good for your pantry, it’s probably good for the fridge,” Arati says, “after all, the same principles apply: zone, label, stack, elevate. So, why stop at bins? Why not employ all pantry organizers—trays, baskets, lazy Susans, even tiered shelf organizers?”
What are your best tips for a supremely organized fridge? Tell us in the comments below!
This article originally appeared in March 2019. We’re re-running it because a supremely organized refrigerator is a thing of beauty.