With a large family and a small fridge, I’m sure you can imagine how crowded and disorganized it can become. Luckily, we do have a small chest freezer, but even that is filled to the brim.
With school letting out this coming week, I have set out to reorganize the kitchen, to get ready for a summer filled with kids going in and out of the refrigerator all day long.
Step 1: Declutter and Clean
Today, I headed to the fridge with a stack of black garbage bags, paper towels, and cleaning solution. Kids (at least my kids) are not always the neatest when they help themselves to a snack or a cup of milk. Spills are inevitable.
My fridge can tell you the story of leftovers past. Opening the door and looking in, I took in the vast supply of jarred items, bowls covered in plastic wrap, and half-drunk bottles of water.
I became a bit discouraged, but then I reminded myself: It is a big job, but not an impossible one.
I closed the door in order to tackle the first task, decluttering the outside of the appliance. Above my head, I spied a container filled with miscellaneous tools, a can of spray paint, and an empty cardboard box.
I am not sure who has arms that are long enough to reach up there, so I promptly blamed my husband.
Grabbing the step stool, I climbed up and started to declutter. Everything was returned to where it belonged, or was recycled.
Magnets secure an endless amount of artwork, tests, and photographs to the door. After removing everything, I sprayed the entirety (including the top) with cleaning solution and grabbed a few paper towels. I felt such a sense of accomplishment when the handles glinted back at me.
Then, I remembered the larger task at hand – the inside.
Step 2: Get Rid of Expired, Moldy, and Otherwise Too-Old-to-Eat Food
First, I tackled the bottom refrigerated section. I grabbed a black garbage bag and a portable cooler filled with ice (the one I bring on picnics or to the beach).
Checking the expiration dates, I discarded anything that has passed the date. I also threw out any items that looked questionable, because it is always better to be safe than sorry.
The foods I needed to save were placed in the cooler and covered. I wanted to make sure everything stayed chilled while I finished cleaning the inside.
Step 3: Take Inventory
Once the shelves and drawers sparkled, it was time to take inventory. Which foods were we eating regularly and which sat untouched?
It is important to take note of this when planning out my grocery budget for the month. I can tell you that my family goes through ketchup (or “check-up” as my little one calls it) like water, but we have two (opened) bottles of relish leftover from last summer.
This summer I know that if we buy relish I only need a small container, but I should probably buy ketchup in bulk (or just make a big batch of homemade ketchup right at home!).
Step 4: Map Out Your Space
To make our lives a little easier (hopefully) I have designated different uses for different areas of the fridge. I like to keep milk and dairy products together on the top shelf, vegetables in the drawer, condiments in the door, and meats to defrost on the bottom shelf.
I have a drawer where I like to store cut cheese and other snacks, so the kids can easily grab what they need without disrupting too much.
In some cases of doing this, I’ve been surprised by the new kitchen space I’ve created for storing more items!
Step 5: Labeling
I bought a supply of new plastic containers, zipper lock bags (quart and gallon sized), food storage labels, and a permanent marker.
In the past, I have worked at labeling foods in order stay organized, but sometimes, when I am rushed, I don’t always stick to the plan. It is my goal for the summer not to let the contents of my fridge get out of control.
Leftovers should always be transferred to a container or bag and labeled with the contents and the date before placing in the fridge or freezer.
It is also helpful to label the drawers and shelves, so you can be sure that family members can easily put things back where they belong. With a few pre-readers in my house, I like to include a picture (at least on the snack drawer) so my preschoolers can help with our efforts to stay organized.
After returning all of the foods to the bottom half of the appliance, I worked at organizing the freezer section. I pulled everything out and discarded opened bags of frozen vegetables that had been shoved in the back and were obviously freezer burnt.
I like to fit everything back in to the freezer so it fills the space. It is the ultimate game of Tetris, so square and rectangular containers work best.
Freezer baskets work very well, especially in our chest freezer.
Design a visual map so that when you stack containers, you can remember where you put everything. It is also especially convenient to keep a written inventory of your foods.
You do not want to be digging through the chest aimlessly. You will either give up, or have to unload the freezer in order to find what you are looking for.
Step 6: Staying the Course
Now that everything is finally organized, I need to make sure that I stay on track. My cabinet is stocked with a full supply of food storage containers and freezer bags.
I need to replenish this supply regularly or I will wind up with a multitude of bowls covered with plastic wrap again. This only leads to a messy looking fridge (and spills).
Along with the supplies I purchased, there are other solutions available to help you to stay organized and on top of things. We used to have a soda storage container. It resembles the cardboard boxes that 12-packs of soda come in. Since we don’t regularly buy soda, we don’t use this for its intended purpose. Instead, we’ve adapted it for use storing odds and ends.
Leftovers should only be saved if they will be eaten at a later date, and all surplus food needs to be stored in a designated area. Store older leftovers towards the front of the fridge so they will be eaten first.
It is easy to incorporate the remnants of past lunches and dinners into the weekly meal plan. During the summer, I find that leftovers make a great lunch. With a little work, it is easy to turn last night’s chicken breast into chicken salad or chicken quesadillas.
Remember to place older foods in front of the newer items so that the older yogurts get eaten first and the older vegetables are cooked before using the newer ones.
By following these tips and tricks, you’re bound to help keep the kitchen cleaner and more organized.
About Jennifer Swartvagher
Jennifer is an experienced journalist and author. Her work has been featured on TODAY Parents, The New York Times Blog, BlogHer, Scary Mommy, and scores of other parenting and cooking publications.