Once you’ve disposed of the truly gone-by items—homemade leftovers that are four days old or more, deli meats that are more than three days old, and other foods that have started to smell off—it’s time to wipe down surfaces and start fresh. If you can’t remember the last time you cleaned your refrigerator or if the answer is more than a month ago, it’s time. When you’re running low on food (before a big shopping trip) is a good time to tackle this task—you can dispose of expired items, clean the fridge, and then put the newly purchased food into a fresh, clean environment.
The best way to clean is using paper towels, hot water, and dish soap. Wipe down the interior walls of the fridge and the shelves, paying special attention to the bins that hold fresh produce and to the drawer or area of the fridge that you designate as the deli meat and cheese area.
For an extra step, you can sanitize with a kitchen surface sanitizer (many contain bleach) from the grocery store, being careful to follow label directions. You can make your own sanitizer by adding a teaspoon of unscented bleach to a quart of water. After you clean the refrigerator, pat it dry with fresh paper towels. Bleach solutions get less effective with time, so discard unused portions daily. Unfortunately, solutions of lemon juice and water aren’t strong enough for effective cleaning, so stick with store-bought cleaning solutions or a homemade bleach solution.
Of course, even if you do a routine cleaning, you also need to wipe up any spills inside the fridge—especially spills of raw animal products like meats or eggs—immediately.
Now you’re ready to unpack strategically.
Not all real estate in the fridge is equally cold. The door, for example, is a place to store items that can safely fluctuate by a couple of degrees, such as condiments and butter— but not eggs. The key is to keep the foods that support the growth of bacteria in the coldest parts of the refrigerator, where the temperature will keep the bacteria from multiplying. You also want to keep the fridge from being overstuffed: there should be enough room for cold air to circulate around foods.
If you buy fresh fish, keep it stored in its original wrapper. Live shellfish should be refrigerated in containers covered with clean, damp cloths that are not airtight. Discard shellfish, such as lobsters, crabs, oysters, clams, and mussels, if they die during storage or if their shells crack or break. Tip: live molluscan shellfish close up when their shell is tapped.
And finally, keep raw meats separate in the fridge, still wrapped in that plastic bag from the store, ideally resting in a shallow plastic storage container on a low shelf so that juices can’t drip onto foods below.
Use this food storage guide to help organize your fridge: