How to Organize Your Fridge to Maximize Your Foods' Shelf Life

You've got your grocery shopping and food prep routines down to a science. But your refrigerator organization skills could use some help. After all, if you're going through all the trouble of buying and making healthy food for the week, isn't it worth the bit of extra effort to make sure it stays fresh and tasty for as long as possible?

Do your refrigerator organization skills need some help? (Image: JazzIRT/E+/GettyImages)

Two dietitian-nutritionists share their plan to properly organize your fridge. You'll be surprised to find out that some items you're probably putting in there don't even need refrigeration!

What to Store on the Upper and Middle Shelves

The top and middle shelves of the refrigerator are a great place to store items that don't need to be cooked like ready-to-eat foods. Think:

  • Leftovers
  • Hummus
  • Yogurt
  • Cheese
  • Deli meats

The lower shelves can be used for items that need to be cooked. Here's why: If cross-contamination occurs — for example, if foods on the higher shelves drip down — it won't be a problem because the contaminated food on the lower shelves has to be cooked to a higher temperature.

Be mindful of what you're putting on the top shelves, making sure that the venting and cooling system in the back of the refrigerator isn't being blocked by large food items. "We typically shove our larger, more bulky items to the back of the fridge," Michele Sidorenkov, RDN, trained chef and dietitian, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "But blocking those vents can alter proper airflow, decrease your refrigerator's efficiency and cause ice crystals to form on the foods that are closest to the vents."

Lara Metz, RDN, a New York City-based registered dietitian-nutritionist, has another tip for organizing the upper and middle shelves: Put the foods you want to be eating there so it's the first thing that catches your eye. "If you open your fridge to a rainbow of vegetables, you'll go for a carrot and hummus snack, rather than the pudding that was once in its place," she tells LIVESTRONG.com.

Crisper Drawer

Many produce items do best in the crisper. That's simply because fruits and vegetables are made up of mostly water, and the dry, circulating air in the refrigerator sucks out all the water and — more importantly — the nutrients!

"Creating a more humid, slightly damp environment for your produce items is really the best way to slow the amount of water loss and preserve nutrient quality," Sidorenkov says. She suggests preventing water loss by wrapping produce in a slightly damp paper towel and loosely wrapping it in a plastic bag. This trick will also extend the life of your produce, keeping it feeling firm and crisp for a longer amount of time.

Tip

Like many fruits, apples contain ethylene, a chemical which helps them ripen but can promote over-ripening in other produce. "Separate ethylene-emitting fruits such as apples, pears, melons and stone fruits from other produce to prevent spoilage,” Metz says.

Bottom Shelves

Perishable items most susceptible to contamination should be properly sealed and placed on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator. These include:

  • Raw meat
  • Poultry
  • Fish
  • Eggs

As previously mentioned, these potentially leaky items could cause cross-contamination if you store them above fresh food items like produce.

Refrigerator Doors

According to Sidorenkov, refrigerator doors are the warmest part of the refrigerator. That's why they're the best option for storing jarred or canned items like condiments and vinegar. Typically, these items have longer expiration dates as well as a high amount of salt, which acts as a preservative, making them better able to handle the slightly warmer temperatures than more perishable foods.

That being said, avoid placing dairy items like cheese and milk on your doors, since these products need the cold air to keep bacteria away.

The Freezer

Of course, you should also use the freezer for items that need to stay frozen — for example, ice and ice cream — as well as perishable items that you want to eat or meal prep with later like fruits, veggies, meat and stock.

One of Sidorenkov's favorite food storage tricks is to always store bread in the freezer. "The refrigerator actually makes your bread go stale faster than if you had left it out on the counter," she explains. "Cold, circulating air speeds up the retrogradation staling process, turning your bread into a rock in no time." Instead, she recommends slicing the loaf and then freezing it, which stops the staling process right in its tracks. When the bread cravings call, simply take a slice from the freezer and pop it in the toaster.

Foods You Should Never Refrigerate

Sidorenkov has a good rule of thumb when it comes to remembering which foods belong in the refrigerator and which foods belong in the pantry or the counter: "When putting produce away, I try to store each item in a similar way as the grocery store," she says.

That simply means that if you found the produce item in the grocery store at room temperature, then you should keep it at room temperature at home, too. Otherwise, the refrigerator may zap the flavor and sometimes even change the texture. Yuck!

That being said, avoid refrigerating:

  • Citrus fruits
  • Avocados
  • Bananas
  • Tomatoes
  • Pineapples

Tips for Keeping Your Food Fresher for Longer

Extend your foods' freshness and nutrition value while cutting down on food waste with these easy tips, per Sidorenkov and Metz:

  1. For fresh herbs, cut about an inch off the stems, place in a tall jar filled halfway with water, cover completely with a plastic bag and place it in the fridge. This will prevent your herbs from getting dried out by the fridge's cold, circulating air. Try this with asparagus, celery and kale, too.
  2. Store foods like onions, garlic, potatoes, watermelon and hard squash in the pantry or another cool, dark place. Keep onions away from potatoes to prevent sprouting.
  3. Don't wash berries or grapes until right before eating them. They have a dusty covering on their skin called "bloom," which keeps them fresh for longer.
  4. Keep leafy greens fresh and crisp by washing them, drying them and placing them in an airtight container lined with paper towels to absorb moisture and slow the wilting process.
  5. Food safety experts recommend keeping the refrigerator temperature at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) and the freezer temperature at 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-18 degrees Celsius). If your refrigerator's controls don't show the actual temperature, periodically check with a thermometer. Proper refrigerator and freezer temperatures are critical — especially if you don't want all your hard work spent organizing to go to waste.

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