Not to spoil your lunch, but I have some harrowing stats: The United States wastes 30-40% of its food supply each year. Our annual food waste is valued at $161 billion (which equates to 206 billion pounds of ingredients). And the average American family throws out $1,500 in food, every 12 months. Yikes. Unsurprisingly, food waste is the number one material in our landfills. With food insecurity affecting 1 in 8 Americans, the thought of this much wasted food is devastating. Thankfully, there’s good news: you can be a change-maker. Together, we can put a dent in these stats. While there are many valuable ways to help, today’s article is focused on the heart of your home—the kitchen. We’re sharing how to organize your fridge to prevent food waste. Armed with these simple tips and tricks, your food will end up where it belongs: In your belly, not your nearest landfill.
Feature image by Michelle Nash.
Organizing Your Fridge is Key to Combating Food Waste
With grocery bills increasing, your ingredients are more precious than ever. Getting the best bang for your buck is key. All our favorite fresh and vibrant spring produce is right around the corner, and there’s no better time to get a grip on proper ways to store fresh fruit, veggies, and herbs. Like many of you, we’ve felt the guilt and frustration of letting fresh produce reach its wilted (or sometimes, rotten!) state. Far too often, we’ve come home from the farmers market, and immediately thrown everything into the fridge. A few days later, our lettuce is bathed in moisture. Although we’ve made major progress on our fridge organization (and our pantry), we’re on a 2022 mission to make our produce last longer.
Ready to learn how to organize your fridge to prevent food waste? Let’s dig in.
Why It’s Important to Properly Store Food
This goes without saying, but taking a little extra time to properly store your food—especially your produce—is a game-changer. It won’t ensure you never throw out another bunch of limp herbs, but it will help your produce extend its shelf-life. Despite the annoyance of tackling a few mini-chores after grocery shopping, your future self will thank you. For long-lasting produce, say sayonara to shoving ingredients into shelves and drawers. In the long run, it will save you money, improve your health, reduce food waste, and make that organic food worth the price tag. Below are tips for how organize your fridge to prevent food waste—plus useful products to help you make the most of your leftovers, dairy, vegetables, fruits, herbs, and more.
Best Refrigerator Temp to Keep Food Fresh
Ever considered that your fridge might be too cold or too warm? According to the Food and Drug Administration, experts say that the ideal refrigerator temperature is 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below. These temperatures inhibit the growth of microorganisms like salmonella, E. coli, and listeria, which can cause food-borne illnesses. Part of learning how to organize your fridge to prevent food waste means getting the fridge temp right.
Should You Wash Your Produce Before Refrigerating It?
Some sources advise against washing vegetables before refrigerating them. Like, lettuce. I’ve found that as long as you don’t store it completely drenched, it should be fine—and may even be beneficial. Since you won’t remove all the water after rinsing lettuce, for example, the paper towels you wrap them in will become damp. Periodically, check for any limp leaves and compost them. For bunches of kale, spinach, and other greens, remove any rubber bands or packaging and treat them in the same way. At minimum, wrap the whole, unwashed heads or bunches in paper towels (or clean tea towels) to help prolong their life in the fridge.
Caveat: Don’t wash your berries until you’re ready to eat them! Most berries should not be washed until they are being used. Excess water can cause premature spoilage for delicate, antioxidant-rich fruits like blueberries and raspberries, even gooseberries.
The Best Way to Store Fresh Fruit
Let’s begin with fresh fruit. Most fresh fruit—including apples, berries, kiwis, and grapes—will last longer if kept in your fridge’s crisper drawer. For citrus, do the same. Keep them out of any plastic bags, too. They will last for a couple weeks when stored in this manner. For berries, don’t wash them until you plan to eat them. Put the clean, dry berries in a clamshell and store them in the fridge. You can also use a produce saver, like this. Otherwise, store the berries in a clean container lined with paper towels, with no lid. That way, condensation can evaporate. Like bananas, avocados can be stored on the counter. However, once they ripen, it’s best to refrigerate both avocados and bananas. If you refrigerate an unripe avocado, it will ripen eventually (but the texture and taste may be compromised).
To ripen most fruit, store it in a loosely closed paper bag on the counter, for two to three days. Avoid unusual heat and direct sunlight. This works very well for bananas, avocados, and kiwis.
Be Gentle With Herbs
Onto herbs. It’s a great idea to grow your own herbs, but if you can’t, they’re very economical. When you get them home, take your herbs out of whatever packaging they’re in. Remove any brown, desiccated, or slimy pieces. Give them a quick, but thorough, rinse in cold water. Blot them dry. If you have a salad spinner, you can use that to help get even more water out (excess moisture is a great contributor to rot). Now, you have two options:
Option 1: Roll Herbs Into a Dry Towel
When they’re mostly dry, transfer the herbs in a single layer to a dry paper towel (or clean kitchen towel) and roll it lengthwise into a cylinder. Place that in a bag and stash it in the fridge, preferably in the crisper drawer. For the bag, use these with breathable, washable, reusable mesh bags. They’re great quality and eco-friendly.
Option 2: Place Herbs in a Jar With Water
Otherwise, place your herbs in a Mason jar with 1-2 inches of cold water. They should be in a loose bunch without the original rubber band or twist tie. Make sure the stem ends are submerged in water. Place these anywhere in your fridge, although I’ve found that the shelf attached to the fridge door works best (as they get some warm air flow). Replace the water every few days, as you would with a bouquet of flowers.
No More Wilted Lettuce
If you buy heads of lettuce, treat them like you would tender herbs. Trim off the stem to separate the leaves, wash them, dry them, roll them up in dry paper towels, and put them in a bag or storage container to help protect from bruising. If you buy a plastic container of spinach, open the lid, place a few paper towels across the top of the spinach, and put the plastic lid back on. Flip over the container (so that it’s upside down) and stick it in the fridge. The paper towels will absorb moisture!
Take Advantage of Your Crisper Drawer
Most other vegetables are fine to simply place in your crisper drawer until you need them: zucchini, celery, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, etc. However, you might consider investing in these drawer liners, which work on the same principle as paper towels. Instead of wrapping around the produce itself, they go on the bottom of your fruit and veggie drawers. They wick away excess moisture that contributes to spoilage. The liners also allow more air circulation, which helps things stay fresh for longer.
Your Tomatoes Prefer Room Temperature
For tomatoes that aren’t quite ripe, don’t put them in the refrigerator. They need to stay at room temperature, ideally in a single layer (out of sunlight). To keep them fresher longer, store them stem side down while they finish ripening. Once they’re ripe, you can put them in your fridge, but eat them within a few days.
Do You Need to Refrigerate Root Vegetables?
For carrots, beets, turnips, and the like—yes, stick them in the fridge. If you buy them with the greens attached, it helps to trim the tops off if you’re not using them, since they’ll go bad faster than the roots. Toss the stems in your compost, freeze them for broths, or add them to sauces. Potatoes, onions, winter squashes, etc. don’t need refrigeration, but should be stored in a cool, dark, and dry place.
Where to Store Dairy and Animal Protein in Your Fridge
For omnivores, how to organize your fridge to prevent food waste includes dairy and animal protein! This is where you want to use the main compartment. The main compartment is where the bulk of the food is stored, and there are typically several shelves as well. On the lower shelves, store raw meat, dairy, and eggs. The temperature tends to be coldest, but it’s not too cold (like the back of the fridge) to cause freezer burn.
Are You Properly Storing Your Condiments?
Anything with a lot of acidity, sugar, or salt does not need to be refrigerated. You read that right. Standard ketchups, mustards, and jams don’t have to be stored in the fridge. Because they contain large amounts of salt and sugar (to keep them preserved), you can keep them in your pantry—even after they’re opened. The same goes for things like Sriracha, hoisin, or barbecue sauce. They’re made with enough vinegar and sugar to keep them safe to consume when stored at room temperature. Mustard’s flavor will keep better in the fridge, but it’ll still be safe to eat until its best by-date if you decide to store it in the pantry.
The only instance in which you might need to refrigerate one of these ingredients is if you’ve purchased a reduced-sugar or low-salt version. If you’re like me, I err on the cautious side and refrigerate most condiments. For condiments with dairy (like mayo!), always stick them in the fridge. You can place them on the door’s shelf or at the top of your fridge. Lastly, never refrigerate olive oil or honey. You run the risk of destroying these ingredients if you refrigerate them. Honey can crystallize and dry out, and olive oil will solidify and lose its flavor.
Nuts, Nut Butters, and Seeds
I prefer the fridge (or freezer—for whole nuts and seeds). Particularly if you buy your nut butters with nothing added, you get them freshly ground, or you make them yourself, store them in the fridge. On the other hand, shelf-stable nut butters are typically made with preservatives, and will be safe to eat when kept in your pantry. At the very least, take a look at the ingredients list. If you notice preservatives, or lots of sugar or salt, then it’ll be safe to leave at room temp after opening.
Final Tips for How to Organize Your Fridge to Prevent Food Waste
Most importantly, remember this: out of sight, out of mind. What gets put at the back of your fridge isn’t going to see the light of day. For leftovers, opened sauces, fresh herbs, and produce you want to eat in the coming days, keep them within reach. In other words, think front to back. Any time you add something new to your fridge, rotate the older items in each zone to the front. Secondly, label anything homemade. Use painter’s tape to write the name of the recipe and the date it was made. Thirdly, keep a running list. For large families—or anyone who has a tendency to jam a crisper drawer full of produce—make a list of what’s actually in there once a week, and tape it to your refrigerator door.
What fridge organization rules you live by? Let’s hear them in the comments!
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