Save time, money, and food by taking a structured approach.
The modern refrigerator is a wonderful invention, and I am very happy to have one, but there have been times when I thought of it as a ravenous monster swallowing my leftovers. Food used to disappear regularly into the belly of my fridge and I didn't see it again until something (a bad smell, an inconvenient spill, or pure congestion) prompted me to do a purge. By then it was hardly recognizable, covered in a thin layer of fuzzy mold or shrivelled up to a fraction of its former size.
I have learned over the years that, in order to avoid this sad fate, a refrigerator must be kept clean and organized. This is not as hard as it sounds once you establish some strategies and stick to them rigorously. An excellent article in the New York Times goes over some basic fridge organization tactics, some of which I'd like to share here, along with my own suggestions.
1. Think about longevity and organize accordingly.
Ingredients last for different lengths of time, depending on what they are. Condiments have lots of salt and vinegar in them, natural preservatives that make them suitable for the door shelves, which are the warmest part of the fridge. Ingredients that expire quickly, such as dairy and meat, should be kept at the bottom, closest to the back of the fridge, where it's coldest.
2. Think about cross-contamination.
If you eat raw meat, you should keep it separate from everything else. The rule in restaurants is to store it on the bottom so that, if there's a leak, nothing below can get contaminated. You could also designate one of the crisper drawers for meat, to keep it contained. Clean regularly.
3. Stay on top of leftovers.
The NY Times article uses the phrase "FIFO: first in, first out." Newly packed food should go in the back and food that needs to be eaten sooner moves to the front. Store in glass containers if possible, so you can see what's there, or label with a painter's tape and a Sharpie. It's important to have a leftover-eating routine, i.e. you take them for lunch the next day or you have a leftovers night once or twice per week for dinner.
4. Use storage solutions to keep things organized.
Baskets, clear boxes, trays, and lazy Susans are all recommended by organizational experts as a way to keep ingredients corralled in one place and easy to access. Clear, shallow containers tend to be best because they don't block your view. I like to use mason jars whenever possible.
5. Think about your own cooking style.
Everyone has their go-to ingredients that get used more frequently than others. Make these easy to reach to save time looking and minimize the amount of time the fridge doors are open. For example, I use a lot of canned tomatoes in cooking, so I always keep unused portions in a prominent location to make them easy to remember for the next recipe. I also use a lot of herbs, so I keep those on the top of the crisper drawer or in jars of water at the front. My family keeps milk in the door only because the kids drink it so quickly and they need to be able to reach it with minimal risk of spilling.
6. Label everything.
This is especially important in the freezer, where food becomes unrecognizable in a very short time period. I already mentioned the painter's tape and Sharpie approach, but the NYT article has an even more extreme (and clever) idea: keep a whiteboard on the wall. Marguerite Preston writes,
"We can keep track of what we have without opening the door. We list everything in the freezer that needs to get eaten, from frozen waffles to salmon fillets, and consult the list when we’re planning dinner or writing our grocery list (which lives on the other half of the white board)."
7. Do mini cleans.
Don't let the fridge get out of control. Whenever a shelf or drawer is almost empty, or before doing a weekly grocery shop, grab a soapy cloth and give it a quick wipe before filling it again. Clean up messes whenever they occur, and always remove food that's not going to be eaten. Do not let your fridge become a food graveyard! A bit of effort on a daily basis will reduce the number of full fridge purges you need to do.