A shelf-by-shelf guide to safely organizing your fridge

Is your fridge so stuffed you’re not sure what’s even in there? Reducing food waste often means making the most of what you have by keeping your food safe and fresh for whatever you want to cook up. Take your fridge one shelf at a time to keep your food organized and safe.

Top shelf: ready-to-eat foods, fully-cooked foods

Prepared meals are safe to keep in the refrigerator for three to four days. So, if you’re batch cooking or meal prepping in advance, any food you won’t eat in the next four days is safer in the freezer. More on this later.

When it comes to meal prepping there are a few tricks to storage that can keep your meals in good condition longer.

  1. 2-hour limit. Never leave it out for longer than 2 hours before putting it in the refrigerator.
  2. Shallow storage. Use shallow containers with a tight cover or resealable bag with all of the air squeezed out.
  3. Temperature and texture compatibility. Store your meal according to temperature and textures (i.e., chicken and quinoa in one container, salad greens and avocado in one container, and dressings or sauces in another container).
  4. Use labels. Label reusable containers with a washable or dry-erase marker with the use-by date.
  5. Safely reheat. Reheat hot foods to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

Here is a guide for how long to eat some common ready-to-eat foods:

  • Three to four days: prepared meals intended to be eaten hot or cold, soups, casseroles, chicken salad, egg salad, seafood salad, guacamole, leftover pizza, and leftover meat, fish, poultry, or eggs
  • Three to five days: coleslaw, cooked pasta, pasta salad, potato salad, cut fruit (four days), cured meats if refrigerated after opening
  • Four to six days: cooked rice, homemade/fresh salsa 
  • Seven days: hummus, bacon
  • 14 days: deli and cured meats, if refrigerated from the date of purchase, olives from an olive bar

Middle shelves: eggs, dairy, fresh foods

Fresh foods that need to be kept cold like hummus, deli meats, fruits, and vegetables that need to be refrigerated (if you don’t have a crisper) can also be stored on the middle shelves.

When you get home from the grocery store, start by removing fruits and vegetables from plastic bags and wiping away all moisture before storing or refrigerating them to help them stay firm. Check out the itemized list of which produce foods go where.

Bottom shelf: poultry, meat, and seafood

It’s safe to keep raw meat in the original packaging, but place it on a plate to keep the juices from dripping and causing cross-contamination. Some refrigerators even have a drawer that’s separated from the freezer and main fridge compartment that may also be a good place to keep raw meat.

Pay attention to the best-by date. If you can’t cook before then, keep it in the freezer until you’re ready. When you’re ready to cook it, thaw it in the refrigerator for 24 hours prior to use or follow the instructions on the package for best ways to thaw.

Seafood can be kept in a bag on ice in a dish to collect anything that drips, but it should be safe in its original packaging for two days.

Crispers: fresh fruits and veggies

Your crispers are designed to control humidity and extend the life of fresh fruits and vegetables. There are a few of considerations that should go into how you organize these drawers:

Watch for spillage.

Ensure no spills or meats are able to enter the crisper drawers.

Organize carefully.

Crispers have a sliding vent / dial that you can use to control the humidity. It’s best to organize these foods both by need for moisture and ethylene producing/sensitive foods.

  • Close vent for high humidity drawer and ethylene-sensitive foods: leafy vegetables, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, chard, cucumbers, eggplant, green beans, okra, peas, and fresh herbs
  • Open vent for low humidity and ethylene-producing foods: green onions, fresh fruit, and ripe avocados

Door: condiments, bottled drinks

Commercial sauces and condiments can stay fresh for a longer period of time, and many can even safely be kept at room temperature after opening. Since these foods are less sensitive to varying temperatures, the door is a great place to keep them.

  • Many condiments and non-dairy bottled drinks are good for one to two years from the date of purchase, but use the best-by date on the bottle.
  • For specialty condiments, follow the package instructions as some of them may contain unique ingredients.

Freezer

Frozen foods seem to last the longest, but there’s still a timeline.

  • One to two months: cooked pasta
  • Two to three months: prepared meals, soups and stews, cooked meats, poultry, fish, or eggs
  • Six months: cooked rice

Looking for ideas to stock your fridge and pantry for the best meals at home? Check out this guide on which foods are great for work-from-home performance.

About the Author

Paige Crawford

Paige Crawford, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., is a senior project coordinator and performance dietitian at EXOS. She develops nutrition content and manages projects on the performance innovation team.

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