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I come from a family of condiment hoarders. We love pickles, spreads, and sauces, but we can’t ever seem to finish them. This used to result in a Jenga-like situation in my fridge, with jars poised to topple out and break a toe every time I reached for the milk.
Then, in my early 20s, I started working in professional kitchens and had to adhere to strict rules for keeping food-storage areas tidy. In restaurants, organization is important not only because it helps cooks move quickly and smoothly but also because wasted food is wasted money. The same is true at home, and I still use what I learned in restaurants to keep my leftovers, produce, and other perishables in order. Here’s how I do it.
Timing will depend on the size and state of your fridge. If you’ve never done this before—or you have a particularly large and/or packed fridge—set aside an afternoon to pull everything out, wipe down all the shelves and drawers, and organize things thoughtfully.
But once you’ve got a system in place, keeping your fridge tidy should take a lot less time. As long as I stay on top of using all my produce and tossing expired leftovers, I feel the need to do a full clean-out just once or twice a year. And I can usually get it done in an hour or two.
The first step toward decluttering your fridge is to take everything out. I mean everything. Deal with the moldy meat sauce you’ve been avoiding, and take stock of all your condiments.
When you’re ready to refill the fridge, avoid treating it like a junk drawer for food. Designate different areas for different types of items. Your fridge probably comes with a few predetermined zones—crisper drawers, a cheese drawer—but you can create more with trays or bins.
Restaurants often keep smaller containers together on rimmed baking sheets, which are easy to pull out to get a better look. Wirecutter recommends the Nordic Ware Naturals Baker’s Half Sheet, which also comes in ¼ and ⅛ sizes (these may fit better in some fridges). For loose items like lemons, clear bins work best. I use these Rubbermaid Commercial Food Storage Containers for everything, but you can also find bins tailor-made for your fridge at the Container Store.
Another great way to keep ingredients from getting lost in the back of the fridge is to use a lazy Susan, like this OXO Good Grips Turntable. On mine I keep the basic ingredients we reach for daily—like mayo, yogurt, nut butter, and our bin of lemons and limes—within easy reach.
A basic understanding of food safety can help you decide what should go where in your fridge. Fridges are typically coldest toward the back and bottom, warmer on the top shelf, and warmest in the door. So the door is great for condiments with a long shelf life, like jam, mustard, and hot sauce, but try to avoid storing milk there unless you’ll drink it fast. Raw meat should always go at the bottom of the fridge—not only for the cold temperatures but also because you don’t want a leaky package dripping chicken juice over everything else.
Beyond that, organize your fridge around how you cook and eat: Put the things you use often (or want to finish) front and center, and store ingredients you’ll use only occasionally in corners that are harder to reach.
You’ll find it easier to maintain order with a good set of food-storage containers. The best ones are clear and stackable, so they make it easy to see what you have at a glance. I prefer shallow containers to tall, deli-style quart containers, which can obscure the stuff behind them. For several great options in either plastic or glass, check out our guide to the best food-storage containers.
Even with the best containers, it helps to have a system for managing leftovers. One of the cardinal rules of any restaurant fridge is FIFO: first in, first out. This means that new items always go to the back, pushing older food to the front of the line, where it’s guaranteed to get used up first.
To do the same thing at home, you’ll need to spend a little extra time putting away groceries or leftovers, but it will save time later on. Rather than rummaging around for the open jar of tomato sauce, you’ll have the food that needs to be finished right at your fingertips. Using trays or bins makes it easier to follow the FIFO rule because you can pull everything out.
In restaurants, absolutely everything gets labeled with its name and the date. At home, this can help prevent the beef stew you freeze from becoming a murky mystery container in three months. I like to use a Sharpie and painter’s tape for labeling because the label stays on securely but comes off cleanly.
To keep track of what’s in my tiny, dark freezer, which is usually packed to the brim, I also use a white board next to the fridge. My husband and I keep a list on the board of everything in the freezer that needs to be eaten, from frozen waffles to salmon fillets. And we consult it when we’re planning dinner or writing our grocery list (which lives on the other half of the white board). If you have trouble using up all the vegetables in your fridge or remembering to finish off leftovers, the same system might help there, too. We hung our board on the wall, but if your fridge is magnetic, you can easily find a board that will stick right to the door.
If, even after your best efforts, clutter starts to return (it happens to me!), just try to nip it in the bud before you have another leaning tower of Tupperware situation. Cook a clean-out-the-fridge meal, and use your condiments for a fancy toast-toppings bar. And when you really need to, pull everything out and start over.
Marguerite Preston is a senior editor covering kitchen gear and appliances at Wirecutter, and has written guides to baking equipment, meal kit delivery services, and more. She previously worked as an editor for Eater New York and as a freelance food writer. Before that, she learned her way around professional kitchens as a pastry cook in New York.
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