Refrigerator Inventory: 5 Steps to a freshly frugal fridge

Tasty Trash: The $55 million Squawkfox Food Waste Challenge is a series aimed at helping your family save up to $1,500 this year by reducing food waste. The environment may also thank us. To start from the beginning, read the introduction.

Your cool fridge is likely a hotbox for food waste. Since many families toss around 25% of all groceries purchased every year, you gotta know your refrigerator is the place where good food goes to die.

You can change that.


organized fridge

By keeping your fridge organized and in tip-top shape, it’s easy to prevent fresh food from going foul. Start by keeping a Food Waste Diary so you know what’s getting trashed, then follow these five easy steps to get your fridge frugally fresh and reap the savings.

Step One: Find the fossils.

Pull up your sleeves and clear your kitchen counter top, ’cause it’s time to go on a mini archeological dig. No, you don’t need to don an Indiana Jones-type Fedora and brave a sea of snakes (hopefully), but I do want you to crack the whip in search of ancient artifacts.

This step is all about exploring for expired items, searching for science projects (yeah, those plastic containers filled with moldy bits), and turning your fridge into a happy place to store tasty things.

Money Saving Tip: More space, less food waste. Removing expired and foul food from your fridge creates more space for leftovers, and your fresh food won’t be hidden from view and risk spoilage. Besides, spending money on your electrical bill to cool expired and moldy items is a complete waste of cash.

Here’s how to get the job done:

1. Empty your fridge. Pull everything out of your refrigerator. To prevent good food from spoiling, be sure to stack your perishables in a cooler or a second fridge.

how to clean a fridge

2. Scrutinize dates on packaged products. Not all dates are created equal — Best before, Display until, and Sell by all define different things, so your food could still be safe to eat after the magic date has passed. Yes, this is confusing. No, you don’t need to throw everything out.

expiry dates

It’s a date:

  • Display until, Sell by: Feel free to ignore these dates — they are for the store only, and don’t determine food quality.
  • Best before: If the product is stored correctly, the manufacturer guarantees food to be in its prime before this date, and many foods are good afterwards. Best before doesn’t mean Worst after.
  • Expiry date or Use by: Toss it. All food not consumed by this date should go. Add these items to your Food Waste Diary.
  • Packaged date: Some regions require a Packaged date on products like meats. Use this together with the Expiry date to determine food freshness.

3. Leave the leftovers? If you’ve left your leftovers for longer than four days, the Mayo Clinic advises you toss them to prevent food poisoning.

If you’ve made too much dinner or can’t finish lunch within the four-day deadline, go ahead and freeze them right away.

4. Take a sniff? If something smells bad (unless it’s stinky cheese), toss it regardless of packaging dates or leftover age. However, just because something doesn’t smell bad doesn’t mean it’s good. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says illness-causing bacteria generally have no smell, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency cautions consumers to never use their senses to judge the safety of food. “You cannot tell if a food may cause foodborne illness by its look, smell or taste.”

Step Two: Clean your fridge filth.

Have you been giving your fridge the cold shoulder on your weekend clean-ups? Yeah, since this wee announcement I’ve been guilty too.

Money Saving Tip: Clean up for big savings. A clean and well functioning fridge can be an open door to closing costs on food waste. A debris-free fridge can keep food at a constant temperature better than a cluttered mess, and a clean fridge makes your leftovers look more appealing to eat.

Since you’ve already emptied your refrigerator, now is a great time to get scrubbing. Here’s what to wipe:

how to clean fridge inside

1. Remove your drawers. Keep your pants on, but remove all fruit, vegetable, and deli drawers. Yes, your refrigerator drawers are likely a crumby mess. Mine are, err, were too.

fridges

Like your rack and drawer placement? Stick a few Post-it Flags to mark shelf height and position before removing the lot — this makes putting your fridge back together easy. (We can all thank Carl for this trick.)

2. Wipe, vacuum, scrub. Clear out crumbs and debris by wiping or vacuuming them away. Use a dab of dish soap in hot water and a soft rag to scrub and clean any ketchup drips and caked-on messes. Use a clean rag to dry the interior of your fridge.

how to clean a refrigerator

Go ahead and soak fridge drawers, racks, and other cooling doodads in a sink filled with warm, sudsy water. Get those fridge gadgets shining!

3. Don’t forget the door seals! Vacuum and wipe all door seals — they often trap crumbs and other food bits which can cause refrigerator temperatures to fluctuate and food to spoil. Cracked and damaged fridge seals can also raise your energy bill, so consider replacing them.

4. Clear the perimeter. Look behind your fridge (where the dust bunnies live) and vacuum air vents, grills, condensers, and coils to remove all gunk (technical word) — this can improve fridge temperature regulation and lower your energy bill.

Wipe all kiddlet fingerprints and dog nose marks off the exterior. Plastic fridge doors wipe up well with warm water and a dash of dish soap. Those with a stainless steel exterior may require a streak-free cleaner — I use these stainless steel appliance wipes to protect my fridge.

5. Put the pieces back together. Go ahead and place all drawers, racks, bits, and pieces back into your fridge. This is where those Post-it Flags come in handy. (Thank you Carl!)

clean refrigerator

Everything should be gleaming.

refrigerator

No more crumby drawers for me. 🙂

Step Three: Save food in containers, label.

How old were those leftovers? What’s growing in that container? Don’t tell me you’ve never opened a low quality, throw-away, plastic container to find a former meal (turned science project) tucked in the nether regions of your fridge. Here’s how to end the moldy cycle:

1. Invest in quality, clear containers. Take the guesswork out of your dinner plate by using high quality, air-tight, glass containers to keep ingredients and leftovers fresh. Heating up leftovers is easy in a glass container, and since glass is see-through, you’ll stop wondering what’s hiding under the lid. Also, glass containers can stand the test of time, whereas those plastic throw-away 99-cent models often melt, become stained, and get chucked after a few uses, loading up our landfills with crap.

leftovers

I love this Kinetic Go Green Glass Lock 16 Piece Set of containers, and the GlassLock 6 Piece Set is a budget-friendly way to get started.

If plastic is a better choice in your household ’cause you prefer a lighter container to pack lunches, try the affordable Kinetic Go Green Food Storage set.

I use both plastic and glass in my fridge.

Food Storage Tip: Use several smaller, flat containers rather than one massive one so leftovers can cool down more quickly. Smaller containers are also easier to stack in your freezer, and make for quick reheating later.

2. Label your leftovers. Grab a Sharpie and a stack of Post-it Notes, and write the date on each container. Remember: The Mayo Clinic says you shouldn’t keep leftovers for more than four days!

turkey leftovers

Food Storage Tip: Store your leftovers at the front of the fridge at eye level so you can see them (and eat them) before they spoil.

3. Combine the odds and ends. How many ketchup or salad dressing bottles do you have on the go? When too many condiments are eating into your refrigerator space, it’s time to combine the lot into a single container.

salad dressing

Hello? Mr. Newman? I love your dressing, so I’m moving the leftovers to a single bottle to save space.

sauerkraut

A massive Costco-sized jar of sauerkraut is condensed into a small glass container to encourage Carl to take it to work for lunch. (Right, Carl?)

4. Sort fruits and vegetables. One bad apple spoils the lot, so every week I sort through my produce and cull the good from the bad.

strawberries

Remove the bruised bits and keep the good pieces in a container to preserve freshness. These strawberries became a refreshing snack after I finished my fridge cleanup.

how to store vegetables

Not all vegetables come in fancy branded packaging. After visiting the local farmers’ market, I stored my broccoli and peppers in quality Ziploc resealable bags and used a sheet of paper towel to absorb moisture. I rinse and reuse these bags every week.

spinach

Placing chopped lettuce or loose spinach in a salad spinner can help keep salads fresh.

Food Waste Tip: Most fruit, vegetables, and meat products come prepackaged in a resealable freshness bag, so there’s no need to repackage these items. Repackaging cold cuts and some meats may expose them to bacteria, which increases the chances of spoilage.

Step Four: Store food in the smartest spots.

There are right and wrong ways to store your meat, milk, and leftovers. Here are the general rules:

1. Keep your cool. Many of us keep our refrigerated food at the wrong temperature. Are you guilty of this chilling offense? Go check your fridge temperature, and set it to 40ºF (5ºC) or below. Any food left in the danger zone (40ºF to 140ºF / 5ºC to 60ºC) is at risk of growing food bacteria which can make you sick! When in doubt, use a thermometer.

2. Are your drawers hot? Hopefully, not too hot. If you have a newer fridge, go on and check the temperature settings on your drawers and crispers.

fridge temperature

  • Meats and cheeses: Use the Meat or Deli setting to be sure your fridge channels extra cold air (just above freezing) into this space.
  • Produce: Are your fruits and vegetables set to the correct humidities? I get this wrong all the time — maybe you do too. Fruits and vegetables should not be mixed in the same crisper, and each drawer needs to be adjusted to the right setting to maintain optimal produce freshness.

3. Beware of the door prize. Don’t place your milk or quick-to-expire perishables in your fridge doors. According to the USDA, door temperatures fluctuate more than any other spot in your fridge, which can lead to food spoilage and sour milk.

4. Meat belongs in the bottom. Place raw meat and seafood on the bottom shelf of your fridge. Relegating animal products below other items won’t help them last longer, but can prevent drips from contaminating food located below. Be sure meat products are wrapped properly, and clean up any spilled juices immediately.

5. Crowds are not allowed. Is your fridge stuffed to the brim? Then it’s time to rethink your stuffed shelving. Air needs to circulate around your food to keep it cool, and an overly stocked fridge can result in warm spots and cool spaces — you’ll end up freezing your lettuce and souring your milk. (Yeah, it never happens the other way around.)

Overstocking solution: Combine like condiments into one jar, remove items that don’t require refrigeration (such as an entire flat of pop), remove the junk (see step one), and freeze your leftovers if they cannot be consumed within four days.

6. Keep it whole. A single big piece of anything will take longer to spoil than many little pieces. For example: A chunk of ham lasts a lot longer than sliced deli meat, and whole apples stay fresh longer than apple wedges. So don’t cut up meat, fruit, or veggies until you’re ready to consume them (unless you’re freezing the lot).

7. Do an ongoing fridge rotation. Spinning your fridge in circles is not what I’m squawking about here. This step is about moving the older foods hiding in the back of your fridge forward. Carl and I do a ‘fridge rotation’ before every grocery trip to see what’s hiding, and hopefully cross an item off our list if it’s already in stock. This step prevents food waste in our family and saves us money.

Step Five: Do a refrigerator inventory.

Now that your fridge is in tip-top shape with everything in the perfect place, it’s time to take inventory of what you have chillin’.

Why keep an inventory?

A refrigerator inventory details what you have too much of, warns you when items are about to expire, and may inspire you to make meals with the ingredients you have on hand. Anchovy pizza, anyone?

fridge inventory

Free Download: Printable Fridge Inventory (pdf)

Keeping a fridge inventory can help with meal planning and grocery shopping since you’ll know what’s in stock and what needs to be replenished. An up-to-date inventory can also make shopping less wasteful, saving you big money on your grocery budget. Who knows, maybe you can skip a supermarket trip!

What to record:

  • Item: What’s in your fridge? List eggs, milk, cheese, juice, condiments, wine, or whatever you chill on a daily basis. Write down the food expiry date in this section for your reference.
  • Quantity: How much milk is in stock? Do you have enough leftovers for dinner? Quantity is an ongoing itemization of what you have in stock and what is about to run out. Make sure the kids update this column too!
  • Item Cost: You keep your grocery receipts, right? Go ahead and list the money spent on your food. It’s easiest to update when you’ve just done the groceries and stocked your fridge. This column can be a real eye-opener when you add up the total cost of food in your fridge. Those with teenage boys may cry.

Download a copy of my free printable Fridge Inventory and keep it near (or on) your refrigerator so it’s easily updated.

Phew! Now that I’ve cleaned out my fridge, it’s time to tackle my freezer.

Love,
Kerry

Your two cents:

  1. Karen March 1st, 2015

    Your right about the crying with teenage boys! I spend up $250 per week, just to hear them say (come all other parents join in) ‘There’s nothing to eat around here.’ Then begins the rundown as to what to make. One of our twins went to Alberta to work for the summer and our food bill was half! Our twins are almost 17 yrs and 6ft1 and beanpoles. (not overeating)

  2. Mary January 23rd, 2016

    Love this article. You answered so many questions I had. Snowing today in CT I know I will be organizing my fridge.

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