You never want to play Jenga with your food. Some refrigerators are stacked up so high, if you try to pull something from the bottom the whole pile comes crashing down on you. This can be dangerous if this happens in front of the freezer! Nobody wants to come home and find you knocked out cold by a frozen leg of lamb.
All kidding aside, refrigerators should be organized on a regular basis for several reasons. The first is that you want to be able to open the door and see just about everything that is inside without digging around. The second is your health. Old foods can make you sick, even if they look and smell okay. They might even taste fine, and still if they are too old, you may be exposing yourself to dangerous bacteria. When in doubt – toss it out! Lastly, when you hold the refrigerator door open and start rooting around, you are wasting energy (which equals wasting money). No one wants to do that!
If you shop at a warehouse store, keep in mind that you have a finite amount of space in the refrigerator and freezer. Try not to buy so much food that you are forced to stack things. The food doesn’t last forever and it hurts to throw away food that has spoiled.
Start with the fridge door. Condiments and items in glass jars are generally located on the door for easy access. Check their expiration dates and toss anything too old. Avoid putting milk on the door as it might spill when the door swings open. Some refrigerators have built-in egg holders where you can take the eggs out of the carton and put them individually into a holder. Eggs stay fresher in their original carton, but many people use the egg holders anyway. Your fridge, your choice.
Now it’s time to tackle the rest of the inside of the refrigerator. Drinks take up a lot of space, sodas especially. Ideally, keep a few of each type of drink in the fridge and the rest can be nearby in storage. No need to fill the fridge with boxes and cans that may take weeks to use. If the excess is in storage, you can quickly see when you’re running low.
You can purchase stackable shelves if you feel like you need more surface area. They can be used in the freezer as well. Some people use Lazy Susans to have easier access to foods. When buying containers for leftovers, try to purchase clear containers. You will be able to see what is inside without having to take the container out and open it. Shelf liners can keep items from rolling around or falling out.
Put taller items in the back so they do not block the view. Milk or juice may be the tallest items. Check the milk’s expiration date. The old smell test works well on milk! If it stinks or is lumpy, well, you know what to do.
Vegetables go in the crisper. Deli meats (last about 3-5 days after opened) and cheeses go in the deli drawer. You can buy “grocery green bags” that will keep produce fresh longer than the clear plastic bags or leaving vegetables loose. Check the cheese for mold. Harder cheeses tend to last longer. Wrapping cheese in tin foil is magical – it delays mold from forming. Raw meat, like a package of hamburger, should go on the bottom shelf. Generally speaking, the lowest shelf stays cooler than the upper shelves. The more perishable the food, the lower it should be. Speaking of temperatures, the refrigerator should be set for about 33-38° F. If food is above 40° for two hours or longer, it should be tossed.
Leftovers are a wonderful thing. Sometimes you just don’t feel like cooking, and having a meal of leftovers works fine. Most leftovers will be okay for 3-4 days. It is recommended that you reheat them at 325° F or higher to kill any bacteria. Maybe you can’t remember if the food is from Monday or Tuesday. Put dates on leftovers to help you. If there is no place to write the date, just write it on masking tape and stick the tape on the container.
After you finish with the refrigerator, it is on to the freezer. The temperature of the freezer should be no higher than 0° F to keep food as fresh as possible.
If you have a chest freezer, they are a bit of a pain to organize. You are forced to stack things on top of each other, and can end up digging around. Try to rotate the food and put the oldest things on top so you use everything before it goes bad.
Always freeze foods before the “sell by” date to ensure it will be okay to eat later. Raw meat will last 3-4 months, cooked meat 2-3 months. Raw chicken is good for about 9 months, cooked chicken about 4 months. Mark these items with dates too, this is especially important if you repackage the meat. Sometimes chicken will be on sale and you want to buy a big package of it. When you freeze it, you can divide it into amounts you will need for one meal. Put the chicken or meat in a freezer bag and mark the date on it. Soups and casseroles can be frozen and will last 2-3 months. They can be placed in clear containers or freezer bags. Frozen dinners can stay in the freezer 3-4 months. When putting anything in freezer bags, try to squeeze out as much air as possible to avoid freezer burn. Containers stack a lot better than freezer bags, but there will be more air in them. If freezer bags are made as flat as possible before they are frozen, they can be stacked too.
Frozen cakes, cookies, brownies, and other desserts can be frozen. It is much easier to individually wrap one portion of each and store them in labeled gallon freezer bags. They will thaw quicker that way. And, you are only thawing what you need.