Keeping your fridge organized doesn’t just make it easier for you to take stock of your inventory—it also has an impact on how long your foods and beverages stay fresh. While it may be tempting to throw a block of cheese on any shelf or keep a container of juice in the center console when you run out of room on the door, these actions can actually make grocery items perish faster.
To prevent this, it’s important to know where exactly each food group—including drinks and condiments—should live in your fridge. “When you’re considering organizing your fridge, it’s important to take the first step of ensuring your fridge is set to a safe temperature,” says Brittany Saunier, executive director at Partnership for Food Safety Education. “Using an appliance thermometer that you can find at most stores, set your fridge to 40 degrees or below. This temperature range slows down the growth of bacteria that may be on your food.”
After ensuring the appliance is set to the correct temperature, begin organizing by moving certain grocery store staples—think dairy, meats and fish, and fruits and vegetables—into their designated areas in your fridge.
One of the most easily accessible areas of your fridge are the upper shelves, which is why it’s the perfect spot for grab-and-go foods. “The upper shelves should be utilized to keep leftovers and ready-to-eat food items—foods that are intended for direct consumption with no cooking or other processing needed,” says Carla L. Schwan, Ph.D., assistant professor and extension food safety specialist director at the National Center for Home Food Preservation.
Examples of foods that can be stored on the upper shelves include dips, leftover pizza, and deli-type salads, like coleslaw and potato salad.
The middle shelves of your refrigerator are where the temperature is the coldest and the most consistent. According to Schwan, the coldness slows the growth of spoilage (which leads food to deterioration) and pathogenic organisms (which make you sick). For that reason, she says dairy products like milk, eggs, and cheese should be stored there.
Like the middle shelves, the temperature on the bottom shelves of your appliance is also consistently cold. For that reason, raw meats, poultry, and fish should be kept on the lower levels of your fridge. “Additionally, by storing raw meats and poultry on the bottom shelves, you also reduce the risk of cross contamination by preventing the meat juices from dripping on top of other food items that may not be cooked at higher temperatures than meats and poultry,” says Schwan.
The crisper drawers in your fridge should be reserved for fruits and vegetables because they’re designed for effectively controlling humidity. Schwan says that some newer models have at least two crisper drawers that are classified into low and high humidity. “The low humidity drawer is designed to introduce some airflow, while the high humidity drawer is closed off completely,” she says.
Fruits and vegetables release ethylene, a gas that promotes the ripening process of produce. Some fruits and vegetables produce excess ethylene—cantaloupes, peaches, avocados, kiwi, papayas, apples, and pears—and should be kept in the low humidity drawer. “Its design introduces airflow and removes some of the ethylene from the drawer, keeping the produce fresher longer,” Schwan says.
Some fruits and vegetables are more sensitive to ethylene than others—think strawberries, broccoli, lettuce, peppers, cucumbers, squash, and sweet potatoes—and will ripen and spoil faster. The high humidity drawer is where these foods should be kept.
“Its design is closed off completely and prevents the loss of moisture from vegetable tissues, allowing produce to stay fresher longer,” Schwan says. If your fridge doesn’t have these two subsections, just be sure to keep high ethylene-producing fruits and vegetables away from those that are sensitive to the gas.
Just as there’s a coldest area in your fridge, there’s also a warmest spot: The doors. “For this reason, the fridge door shelves should be utilized to store items that can endure temperature fluctuation and will not spoil as quickly,” says Schwan. She recommends keeping condiments (ketchup, mustard, mayo, and dressings) as well as nonperishable drinks (bottled water, soda), in this section of your fridge.