It may be the most dreaded household chore in the world—cleaning out the refrigerator. In fact, some professional house cleaners state upfront that their service does NOT include the fridge. Why? Because somehow, in the rush of life, this major appliance that works around the clock for us ends up getting neglected in the worst way. When the doors are shut, it’s easier to keep the mess out of sight, out of mind—kind of like our closets. But this cold closet holds the very items we need to stay alive from day to day, so it’s time to fight our fears (what IS in that plastic container?) and warm up to the idea that our refrigerators deserve a good cleaning.
When your refrigerator shelves are stacked three items high, there’s a creepy substance oozing out the bottom, and there’s an odd smell coming from the back, then yes, it’s time to clean—for your family’s health. It’s a common joke that we can perform our own science experiments in the fridge and create some new life forms, but foodborne bacteria that can make us ill is no laughing matter. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the bacteria Listeria can spread through food handling and spills in the refrigerator, so regular cleaning is important.
The first step to cleaning out the fridge is to decide which items should go. While most store-bought items include expiration and “best by” dates, they are not helpful once the package is opened. What people really need to know is how long items can be refrigerated after opening. FDA offers a food storage chart online (www.foodsafety.gov) as a guideline, but it’s wise to heed the adage, “If in doubt, throw it out.”
In an article on Webmd.com, Kathleen M. Zelman warns not to take chances with your health, and to get rid of those mystery containers. “You can’t always tell if a food has spoiled by its smell or appearance … If food looks or smells strange, don’t even risk tasting it—just toss it,” she says. “Mold you can see on the surface is just the tip of the iceberg; there could be poisons under the surface of the food that aren’t detectable by the naked eye.”
A good time to purge your fridge contents is before you go shopping, so you can take a good inventory of what you really need. It’s also a good idea to do this the night before your trash pick-up day, and since that is usually once a week, you can begin to make this chore a part of your weekly routine.
Before you get started, turn up the refrigerator temperature a few degrees since you will have the doors open longer than usual. Don cleaning gloves and toss spoiled items in a large garbage bag. Pour old drinks and sauces down the drain. If you have a refrigerator with removable racks and crisper drawers, pull them out and place in the bathtub for easy cleaning. FDA recommends cleaning the inside walls of the fridge as well as the shelves and drawers with hot water and a mild liquid dishwashing detergent, then rinsing and wiping dry with a clean cloth or paper towel. Don’t use chemical cleaners because they will be in direct contact with food (think: the same level of cleaning you use for your dishes is fine for fridge shelves, too). After cleaning with soap, you can also use a water and vinegar mixture (1 gallon of water mixed with 2 cups of vinegar) to get rid of any soap suds and to leave a nice, fresh smell. Don’t forget to return the dial to a normal temperature (FDA recommends 40 degrees).
Good organization is always helpful when it comes to household chores, but when it comes to your refrigerator, it can also save on energy costs. On www.organizedforever.com, Judy Brown suggests grouping similar items in one area; when you know where items are, you don’t stand around with the door open as long. Keeping your fridge organized can also help when you only have a few minutes to prepare a meal for hungry household members before rushing out the door to the next activity. It’s no fun to squat and pull out several items to find that jar hiding in the very back, only to have to hurriedly put everything back in again, which often turns into a sloppy balancing act.
The mere design of refrigerators can tell us something about organization. Condiments should go in the door, the warmest spot in the fridge, because their acidic content helps them last longer. Zelman suggests putting raw meat on the bottom shelf, in a plastic bag, so there’s less chance of juices dripping out on other food. Use the crispers for produce, as they are intended. Experts agree that overfilling compartments is not a good idea, though. Air needs to circulate for a refrigerator to function properly and stay at a constant temperature.
On the Outside
Cleaning the exterior of the fridge can be almost as important as the inside. Don’t forget to wipe off the handle often, as well as the grooves in the seal where the door meets the frame. Here, too, use soapy water followed with a solution of vinegar water. On the top, front and sides of the refrigerator, a chemical cleaner may be needed. And if you’re feeling especially ambitious, clean the coils on the back of the fridge, using a broom or vacuum cleaner. The coils on the bottom, which often look like a grate or wide radiator, should also be cleaned with a vacuum cleaner at least once a year. Refer to your owner’s manual for other specific cleaning needs and energy-saving tips. Many appliance manufacturers post articles regularly on their websites about proper cleaning and maintenance.
Armed with these tips, and a commitment to a regular cleaning schedule, you can conquer the Fridge Factor. There won’t be any more scary episodes to leave you feeling squeamish when you open the door.