Organizing a refrigerator: hygienic ways to keep food fresh for longer

If you know how to organize a refrigerator properly, you can ensure your food stays fresh for longer and avoid cross-contamination

Three images of fridges
(Image credit: Sub-Zero & Wolf / Fisher & Paykel / Tom Howley)

Organizing a refrigerator is an ongoing battle in most households. How often have you come home with groceries in your arm, only to shove them into the fridge haphazardly? In the whirlwind of life's busier moments, organizing our refrigerator usually takes a back seat.

‘Sometimes getting the groceries away is a chore, without worrying about making sure everything fits and is easy to access,’ says Cesar Fernandez, home economist at Miele. ‘But there’s more to re-stocking your refrigerator than you may think. Having a well-organized refrigerator will not only make everything easier to find but also keep it fresher, reduce waste, and save money.’ 

Gaining and maintaining order inside your refrigerator will also result in speedier meal preparation. You may even be inspired to create more interesting dishes rather than grabbing the first items to hand. So, if you are organizing a kitchen this weekend, add organizing a refrigerator to your list.

Organizing a refrigerator

When organizing your fridge, it's important to establish a system to maintain order, which should include regularly checking use-by dates and wiping down surfaces. If your family is guilty of only reaching for the freshest ingredients or snacks, consider establishing an ‘eat me first’ shelf or container and asking them not to open new treats unless the container is empty.

Whether you are rearranging your existing refrigerator or are planning on buying a new refrigerator, we’ve got top advice from the experts, as well as a host of tips on how to organize a refrigerator below.

1. Organize food in your refrigerator by expiry date

Close up of corner of kitchen with large double fridge in alcove, shelving and cabinetry surrounding, kitchen island with sink, brass tap

(Image credit: Humphrey Munson)

'When putting your groceries away, ensure to put it in date order with the shortest dates at the front and the longer dates at the back – this will help you to prioritize the foods that need to be used the soonest,' says kitchen expert, Jamie Griffin from InSinkErator. 'Prior to putting your groceries away, remember to rotate what you already have in your fridge. We advise rotating the contents of your fridge every couple of days to ensure everything is in date and to minimize food waste.'

Headshot for Jamkie Griffiths, kitchen expert from InSinkErator
Jamie Griffin

Jamie Griffin is a kitchen expert and marketing lead at InSinkErator – the world’s largest manufacturer of food waste disposers and the clear global market leader.

2. Label your leftovers

'There is nothing worse than forgetting how long leftovers have been in the fridge for,' says Jamie Griffin. 'In order to combat this, label the leftovers you put in your refrigerator with the date it was stored  in order to reduce food waste'

DYMO Label Maker $64.47

DYMO Label Maker
Was $64.47 | Now $53.99 at Amazon
Keep track of your expiry dates with a handy portable label maker.

3. Store items by shelf position

open fridge with green bottles in the door

(Image credit: Fisher & Paykel)

When organizing a refrigerator, it is important to understand the temperature difference between the top and bottom shelves. Newer refrigerators have better airflow control, but the simple fact that hot air rises means the top of your refrigerator will always be slightly warmer than the bottom. Therefore, the upper shelf is best for anything that doesn’t need cooking. 

‘Think deli items, snacks, and prepared salad pots,’ says Miele’s home economist, Cesar Fernandez. 'The middle shelves are perfect for dairy produce, such as cheese, butter, and yogurt, while the bottom shelf – the coolest – is where you keep raw foods like meat and fish. 

Keeping track of expiration dates – just as you do when organizing a pantry – is a must-do task. ‘Check the labels every now and then to make sure you move anything that should be eaten soon to the front. Keep longer "use by" dates towards the back and rotate on a regular basis as you add new items,’ adds Cesar. 

Headshot of the Culinary Manager at Miele
Cesar Fernandez

Cesar Fernandez is the lead culinary manager at Miele GB. Miele are global purveyors of quality home appliances, developing everything from fridges to washing machines. 

'Don’t forget about the shelves on the doors of your fridge – this is the perfect place for storing chilled drinks and condiments,' adds Jamie Griffin. 

4. Adjust your shelves

‘Possibly the easiest yet often overlooked way to get the most food shopping into your refrigerator is to arrange produce of similar heights on the same shelves, rather than storing a mish-mash of different height items side-by-side,’ says Luisa Jamieson, a food scientist for Fisher & Paykel. ‘Organizing by height means the shelves can be adjusted, and any wasted space is eliminated.’ 

This idea works best with foods of the same type, such as the condiment shelf for example. Don’t put raw meat next to cooked ham just because it’s the same height!

Headshot of a food scientist for Fisher & Paykel
Luisa Jamieson

Luisa Jamieson is one of Fisher & Paykel’s experts in all things refrigeration. Her deep insights into best foodcare practices and the way people want to experience their kitchen is evident in every Fisher & Paykel refrigerator or freezer.

5. Don't overload your refrigerator

When organizing kitchen drawers, kitchen cabinets, and kitchen countertops, try not to overfill these spaces. 

‘A well-organized refrigerator is one that does its job properly and keeps food fresher for longer, ultimately reducing food waste,’ says Valerie Posner, cooling manager at Bosch Home Appliances. A key tip is not to pack food in so much that the air can’t circulate and the contents won’t keep as cool. This could reduce the lifespan of your products. 

Cramming food into every inch can also result in blocked air vents, which in turn reduces energy efficiency. 'Declutter your fridge regularly and think big,’ recommends Valerie. ‘This is where a larger refrigerator is great – not just for families, but for anyone who wants to buy in bulk, as you don’t need to shop as often.'

However, if you really don’t need much refrigeration, switch to a smaller appliance such as a mini fridge. Running a large near-empty fridge means it has to work very hard to cool just a few items, ultimately wasting electricity. Aim to keep your refrigerator around two-thirds full. Add a few bottles or containers of cold water towards grocery shopping day when supplies get low. Once chilled, they will help keep your fridge running efficiently. 

Head of Product Management & Strategy at BSH
Valerie Posner

Valerie Posner is Head of Product Management & Strategy at BSH Group: the largest manufacturer of home appliances in Europe and one of the leading companies in the sector worldwide. Previously Valerie was Senior Product Manager for Cooling at Bosch, Neff and Siemens.

6. Understand what your crisper drawers are for

fridge drawer with green apples

(Image credit: Fisher & Paykel)

Most refrigerators come with at least two crisper bins, also known as humidity drawers, which are designed to extend the lifespan of fruit and veg, but do you know how to use them correctly? 

It may be tempting to pop some items from an overflowing vegetable drawer into the emptier fruit side, but you should resist this temptation. The vegetable drawer is designed for high-humidity produce – greens fare better when there’s moisture around – while the fruit drawer is low humidity, which protects the fruit from premature aging. 

'You also need to understand ethylene when organizing a refrigerator. ‘Ethylene is a gas produced by some fruits and vegetables that causes other produce to ripen faster. An example is avocados, which can speed up the ripening process of bananas too quickly when stored together,’ explains Luisa Jamieson, food scientist for Fisher & Paykel. Separate ethylene-sensitive produce, such as asparagus, broccoli, cucumber, leafy greens, strawberries, and raspberries, from ethylene producers, like pears, avocados, melons, kiwi, mango, and tomatoes. 

If you only keep a few ethylene producers in your refrigerator and don’t want to dedicate a whole crisper drawer to them, store them in a paper bag or box elsewhere in the fridge.

7. Think about what you store in refrigerator doors

Door shelves are the warmest storage point of any fridge, so they’re best reserved for items with natural preservatives, like jams, chutneys, salad dressings, and long-life juices. Anything with high levels of vinegar, salt, or sugar in the ingredients is a good choice (think of items that only require refrigerating once opened). 

While the lowest door shelf is often a convenient size and height to store milk and juice that’s currently open (the upright position reduces the issue of leaky lids), don’t use it for bulk buys. Any extra bottles or drink cartons bought with the same use-by-date will last longer if stored on the middle shelves.

8. Stack bottles and cans in your refrigerator for an easier fit

Fridge designed by Fisher & Paykel

(Image credit: Fisher & Paykel)

If you don’t have the luxury of a separate wine cooler, beverage bottles and cans can take up a lot of precious refrigerator space. Stacking is the solution. 

Buy cans in ‘refrigerator friendly’ boxes, designed to open from the end and allow multiple cans to be squeezed into a small footprint. You can also get specialist refrigerator racks in universal sizes to fit standard appliances that are designed to stack wine bottles and soda cans on top of each other. We like this iDesign Soda Can Fridge Organizer from Wayfair. 

Do make sure bottle caps are screwed tight before you store them horizontally to prevent messy spills. 

9. Store raw meat on lower fridge shelves

The ideal temperature for a refrigerator is between 37°F (3°C) to 40°F (5°C). To prevent bacteria build-up, raw meat needs to be kept at the coolest end of this spectrum, which is why it should only ever be stored on the lowest available shelf. Some fridges have a dedicated drawer for raw meat and fish, and again this will be at the bottom. 

‘Keep raw meat and fish wrapped or in their original packaging to prevent any juices from dripping. Pop it on a plate to be extra safe and help reduce the risk of cross-contamination with other foods,’ adds Miele’s home economist Cesar Fernandez. 'It will take longer, but always defrost meat and fish in the refrigerator, never at room temperature. Bacteria grow as food gets warmer, so keeping it cool when defrosting really is the safest option.'

10. Avoid odor contamination with good refrigerator organization

fridge storage solutions

(Image credit: A Place for Everything)

Some foods can taint the taste of others, so it’s always worth wrapping and sealing smelly foods. Strong-smelling cheeses are one of the worst offenders. Keep them in a dairy compartment if you have one in your refrigerator, or an airtight, Tupperware-style box if not,’ advises Ricky Davies, director of Sub-Zero. 

Also, keep the lids tightly sealed on foods that are prone to odor contamination – such as cream and yogurt. Less stinky cheese, like Cheddar, can be kept quite happily on the middle shelf, along with other dairy items.

Organizing Tupperware storage so it stacks can help you have a neater, more organized refrigerator, too.

Ricky Davies, Director of SubZero
Ricky Davies

Ricky Davies is Director of Sub-Zero: purveyors of quality refrigerators, wine coolers and cookers. 

11. Use containers to keep food fresh and separate

Just as when organizing a chest freezer, decanting fresh and leftover produce into containers is undeniably time well spent. 

‘Keeping the refrigerator organized using containers not only makes everything easier to find but it also helps stop bacteria growing, turning food bad and potentially making people ill,’ says Paul Bough, in-house chef at Zwilling

'By storing fresh produce incorrectly, you instantly reduce the shelf life of your food. Due to exposure to air, the freshness of food is significantly reduced, and therefore, more is likely to go to waste,' says Jamie Griffin from InSinkErator.  'Store fresh fruit and vegetables in containers in order to keep them fresh for as long as possible – however, keep a lookout for any items which may be looking less fresh and be sure to remove them if it is within close contact with other produce items to reduce further wastage.'

12. Keep your fridge clean with regular maintenance

Clean your refrigerator just before your next grocery shop is due. Any spills or stains will be minimal, and the task shouldn’t take long. It also reduces the chances of you coming across expired produce rotting in the back later.

‘By keeping your fridge as clean as possible, you will help to reduce odors, bacteria, and mold, all of which will cause your food to spoil prematurely,’ says Ricky Davies, director of Sub-Zero. You can buy specialist refrigerator liners – such as these color-coded liners from Walmart – to make the job a little easier. However, lining the drawers and shelves with kitchen roll works just as well and will soak up errant spills.  


Chef's kitchen with green cabinets and fridge

(Image credit: Sub-Zero & Wolf)

How do you organize jars in the refrigerator?

Once opened, most jars of condiments, sauces, salad dressings, and pickles need to be kept in the fridge. As the majority of these ingredients last a long time, the numbers can soon grow, often to the point where it feels like the only food you have in the fridge is jam and pesto. 

The best way to organize jars in the refrigerator is to get them all out and check for any repeats. It’s all too easy to grab a fresh jar from the drawer without realizing there’s an open one already. If you have two jars of horseradish open, check if the use-by dates are similar, then decant into one jar.

While you have all the jars out, inspect their use-by dates and check inside for tell-tale signs of mould. Throw anything that’s past its prime into the trash and recycle the jars. Wipe the remaining jars clean and then organize them by use-by date. When you put them back into the refrigerator, put items that need eating first at the front. 

The best place to store condiments is in the door of the refrigerator, as they don’t need to be kept very cold. However, if you have too many, the next best option is the top shelf or middle shelves. Try to arrange labels facing forward so it’s easy to find what you’re looking for, and don’t put them behind anything taller, or they’ll get lost. Visibility is key to avoiding accidentally doubling up again!

How do I get more space in my refrigerator?

To get more space in a refrigerator when you’re organizing a small kitchen or because it’s simply undersized, there’s plenty you can do. As above, a clear out of anything that’s gone rotten is a good place to begin. Rearranging the shelf heights, by arranging items according to their height, can also make better use of the entire cavity. Aim to avoid large voids between the top of your foodstuff and the shelf above. 

Do seek out specialist space-saving products designed for refrigerator use, such as extra drawers that clip under shelves, plus bottle and can stacking racks. Lazy Susan style carousels are a good way of avoiding lost jars at the back, but they do need to be fully loaded to prevent wasted space. 

Keeping close control of refrigerator contents is another great space saver. Tracking items with a list – on the front of the refrigerator or on your phone/device – will help stop accidental repeat purchases.  

Finally, check whether there is anything in there that doesn’t need to be refrigerated. Tomatoes, onions, potatoes, eggs, coffee and honey are just a few items that will be happier stored in a cool, dark cupboard. 

Now that you know how to organize a refrigerator to keep food fresh for longer, consider learning how to stock a fridge aesthetically. By ensuring your fridge is not only hygienic, but aesthetically pleasing too, you may find yourself cooking more often. 

Linda Clayton

Linda graduated from university with a First in Journalism, Film and Broadcasting. Her career began on a trade title for the kitchen and bathroom industry, and she has worked for Homes & Gardens, and sister-brands Livingetc, Country Homes & Interiors and Ideal Home, since 2006, covering interiors topics, though kitchens and bathrooms are her specialism. 

With contributions from