It’s back to school time again, and this means that your refrigerator is going to be working overtime to keep up with all the lunches, quick dinners and snacks you’ll need to feed all the hungry people in your household.
Yes, a fully packed refrigerator is essential to a large, active, always on-the-go family. On the other hand, if your refrigerator is so packed to the brim that you can never find anything that you’re looking for, it can cause a whole host of problems.
Not only will you have kids complaining that there’s nothing to eat, because they just can’t see what’s in there, a packed refrigerator means that food will spoil faster since there’s not enough cool air circulating.
So how do you keep your refrigerator fully stocked and yet well managed so that everyone in your family knows where everything is and all the food gets eaten and not lost somewhere growing moldy and unsightly?
By implementing these two simple yet overlooked strategies, which are:
you can have a cleaner and more organized refrigerator that stays clean, no matter how much food you keep in there, or not.
STRATEGIES FOR KEEPING YOUR REFRIGERATOR CLEAN
Strategy #1: PLANNING
Devise a Weekly Meal Plan
When people hear, “meal plan”, they think: “boring” or “impossible”. I get it… meal planning can seem very time consuming and even impractical—Especially when you’ve got young kids running around and you never know what to expect from one day to the next.
But when you know in advance what you’ll cook, and therefore need to get from the grocery store, you’ll not only keep your fridge better organized, you’ll also be able to better manage other areas of your life, as well.
For example… A few years ago, when I was dealing with a major financial crisis in our family, the only thing that kept my family well fed and within our monthly food budget was by following a strict meal plan. By knowing in advance what grocery items I needed for the week, not only was I able to stay within our food budget, I was better able to stave off impulse buys–You know those expensive yet less than healthy food items like juice and frozen foods that often costs a lot but don’t end up feeding a lot.
And since you always need to buy a more of these single serve container items to sustain a large family, they often take up a lot more space in the refrigerator—space that can be used to store healthier and more cost effective options like cut up vegetables or fruit or even pre-made snacks you’ve prepared with left over ingredients from making your meals.
In this way, if you can plan in advance what you’ll cook for the week, and stick to your grocery list, you’ll not only save money but you’ll maximize the effectiveness of your food availability and minimize waste. This also means that you’ll have a cleaner refrigerator because the food will all get used up more quickly.
As I always say, a better managed food supply equals a cleaner refrigerator which equals a healthier family which equals a more sustainable life which equals…. etc, etc. You get the point. In this way, organizing one domain of your life will almost always lead to better organization in other areas of your life, too.
The good news is, there are some great meal planning apps out there to help make this process easier. I currently use an app called MealBoard which syncs across all my devices.
Before this, I was scheduling my meals in to my iCal by creating a repeating category called “menu” and modifying the description as needed.
But a simple pen and paper system can work well, too. The most important thing is to know in advance what you’ll be cooking and thereby stay on top of what’s going in and out of your refrigerator at all times.
Designate What Goes Where
Now that you know what kinds of food items you’ll need for the week, you’ll also need to plan for where you’ll put them in your refrigerator.
Just as you wouldn’t go out and randomly purchase thousands of dollars worth of furniture without knowing first where it’s all going to go, you’ll first need to devise a plan for where the food is going to be stored in your refrigerator before you actually buy the food.
For example, I have two refrigerators in my home. The one in my kitchen, which gets the most use and another one in my basement which I use as a secondary back up for all my large portioned and long storage items like my kimchee and meats.
Although many people mistakenly think that having more space in your refrigerator is key to having a cleaner more organized one, nothing can be further from the truth. Regardless of how many refrigerators you have, or don’t have, no amount of excess refrigerator space is going to help you keep it organized if you can’t organize what you already have in there. Because, as I’ve personally experienced over the many years of feeding my growing family…
“Clutter expands to the space allotted.”
More space doesn’t necessarily equal a cleaner space—unless you do have a plan to organize that space right from the start.
My kitchen refrigerator, for instance, has four shelves with two of them flanked by one drawer in the middle and two bottom shelves beneath that and one above the two crisper drawers.
Before I designated each shelf space for a specific type of food or use, I used to have a refrigerator stocked full of foods that I couldn’t find anything in, let alone my other hungry family members.
So in order to promote efficiency and self sufficiency in my household, I pre-designated each shelf to only hold certain types of items at all times like this:
The very top shelf, for example, is the shelf where I store egg cartons and other stand alone items, like bread loaves. Not only is this the coolest part of the fridge, it’s also the most remote and least accessible by my kids. Rather than store my eggs in those pre-sculpted egg shelves on some refrigerator doors, I like to keep these somewhat fragile and one time use items self contained and separated. This way, I no longer have to worry about smashed up bread that’s squeezed in between other foods, or my kids cracking an egg by mistake whenever they open and close the refrigerator door. Now, whenever I need eggs or a slice of bread, I can just take out the whole carton or bag put them back when I’m done. No muss, no fuss.
The second shelf of my refrigerator I use almost like a staging area for my husband’s pre-packed, ready to go lunches. I like to line them up all in single file and keep them in the same spot all the time— not only so that I can keep an eye on the supply and replenish when needed, this line order system makes it so much easier for my always on-the-go husband to see and pack his own lunches.
In the middle drawer, considered the deli drawer, I store all my cold-cuts like bacon and sandwich meats and any other packaged goodies like shredded cheese or even tortillas. It’s okay that these food items are not readily visible as they’re only needed during times when I’m using them to prepare my pre-planned meals. Also, having them contained in a drawer like this, keeps these loosely packaged items from cluttering up my shelves.
As for my middle shelves, this is where all the action happens. Since this is the most visible, and the most accessible part of the refrigerator, all my prepared foods like left overs, soups and other more perishable items are stored there. This way, when my kids get hungry, all they have to do is to take out a container of the food item that they want, portion out whatever amount they need and microwave it all on their own—without any help from me!
On my last shelf above my two crisper drawers, I like to keep my kimchee jars and other fermented foods like daenjang and gochujang. One, because this is the warmest part of the refrigerator and therefore the most ideal space for already fermented foods and second, because these foods are not the kind of foods that my kids or even I’ll eat by itself and therefore does not need to take up valuable space on my middle shelf where all the stand alone food items are kept.
The bottom two drawers contain my fruits and veggies because… this is where the refrigerator has the crisper drawers specifically designed to keep them fresher, longer. One note about keeping these separated however. Because fruit gives off ethylene, a gas that makes vegetables spoil faster, it’s that much more important to keep these two food groups separated.
Also, you probably don’t want your apples tasting like green onions either.
Which brings me to the next step in my clean refrigerator system: Maintenance.
Strategy #2: MAINTENANCE
Maintaining a Functional Storage System
Keeping foods readily visible, and easily accessible in my refrigerator not only ensures that the food will stay fresher longer, but it will stay more organized because everyone in your household, including your kids, will know better where everything is and where everything needs to go.
You see, with kids (especially boys) keeping things simpler and more visible is the way to go–especially if you want them to help you maintain order and control clutter. Also, whatever they can see and access readily, they’ll eat. Whatever they can’t, they won’t. It’s as simple as that.
So if you keep all of your left over or ready to eat items, like pasta, pizza, or even cut up fruits in clear, stackable containers like these, the food will get eaten faster. Which means you’ll have an emptier refrigerator by the weeks end.
Also, nothing clutters up a fridge faster than those left overs still left in their take-out containers that’s not clear, or even microwaveable as is (either because they’re in those aluminum containers or because those cheap plastic containers are laced with BPA). Instead, if you transfer these left overs into easily accessible and visible containers, the more you can help other members of your family to help themselves and therefore help you to empty out the refrigerator faster.
One way to ensure this kind of “food-in” and “food-out” system is to store all your prepared food items in similar sized, clear see-through containers that are stackable.
For larger portioned items like left overs, soups, and prepared foods that are ready to heat and eat, I store them in bigger versions of these glass containers which I can then easily stack, one on top of another. This allows me to maximize the shelf space and this allows my kids to help themselves when they’re looking for something to eat; All they have to do is to take a container of the food item that they want, portion out whatever amount they need or just heat it up as is in the microwave safely and easily—all without any help from me!
For the smaller side dishes, I like to use these smaller Ikea containers. Not only do they have a sturdy close snap lid which locks in odors and keeps foods fresh, they’re pretty enough to go directly from the fridge to the table. All you need do is to refill them when you’re running low or stick them in the dishwasher when it’s emptied.
Keeping the storage containers in your refrigerator consistent in size and shape makes it more likely for similar food items to be kept together so that everyone can identify what goes where. This also makes it more likely that other family members will place the containers back to the very spot they got it from. After all, if your kids can get good at combining similar sized Lego bricks one on top of another, why not these rectangular storage containers in the fridge? They’re just bigger bricks, after all.
Of course, getting to this point may take some initial investment of your time and money. But believe me, once your refrigerator is organized logically in this way, it will remain that way more consistently. Moreover, you’ll be spending less time cleaning your fridge rather than enjoying what’s in there, not to mention saving money by using up all the grocery items you’ve purchased more efficiently.
This takes me to my next strategy in keeping and maintaining a clean refrigerator which is to implement a regularly scheduled cleaning routine.
Maintain a Weekly Cleaning Routine
Once you make the food in your refrigerator disappear faster and more easily, you’ll see how much less you’ll have to clean out your refrigerator. As I see it, an emptier refrigerator is much easier to clean than a jam packed one. So what I’ll often do before my weekly grocery shopping is to wipe down my shelves with a clean, wet sponge while it’s still somewhat empty. Either that, or if I have more time, I’ll use my steamer attachment on my Shark Steamer mop to give it a really thorough cleaning.
For my crisper shelves, however, I prefer to take them out whole and wash it down every other week with dish soap and water inside my kitchen sink. This is the best way I’ve found to really get out all those crumbs and debris that tends to collect in the corners.
As for those side door panels, I’ll just pop them out whole, with the condiments and bottles still in there. That way, I can just remove the condiments onto the kitchen counter, and wash the panels out in my kitchen sink just like I did with the crisper drawers. This also makes it easier to remove whatever stuck on gooey stuff that sometimes leaks out from my ketchup bottles or fish sauce, but it also allows me to take a quick inventory of what I have and what needs to be tossed and therefore replenished.
Planning ahead along with maintaining a storage and cleaning routine will work in tandem to keep your refrigerator clean most of the time. Even better, keeping your refrigerator clean will help you maintain order in other areas of your life, as well. Not only will your kids be less needy, and your family less hungry, you’ll be eating out less since your refrigerator will always be fully stocked with ready to cook or eat healthy food items.
What better way to prepare for all those busy weeks ahead during the coming months than to get your refrigerator prepped and ready like this for whatever comes it’s way?