There's really no way around it. To get that refrigerator in order, you are going to have to pull everything out to ensure that there isn’t a container of blue fuzz left in the back corner somewhere. Throw out anything spoiled, unusable or suspicious and clean the surfaces with soap and warm water.
Home kitchens should use the same food safety strategies as commercial kitchens. Cross contamination from drips and spills is a very real possibility.
The foods most likely to contaminate other foods should go on the bottom. Raw poultry should always be on the very bottom of the refrigerator, because it has to be cooked to the highest temperature to be safe. Above that should be raw proteins like beef, pork or fish. Leftovers should be on the next highest shelf with dairy products, including milk, on the top shelf (usually the coolest area in the refrigerator). Condiments and juices can be stored on the door.
This can be a problem because most refrigerators have their humidity-controlled vegetable drawers on the bottom. If you have two vegetable drawers, and they are large enough, use the bottom one for raw meat and poultry. If not, keep the poultry in deep plastic bins on the shelf just above the vegetable drawer. Put raw meat in a plastic bin next to it or above it.
Sauerkraut is delicious on hot dogs but not so great when the flavor mixes with the butter. Foods with strong odors can impart their flavors to other, more delicate foods. Keep this from happening by keeping all opened foods sealed in airtight, food-safe containers. Label the containers with the contents and the date the food was stored.
Plastic bags are not the best way to store foods. Use hard, clear containers of plastic or glass. Square containers make the most efficient use of your space and can be stacked easily if necessary, and glass containers will not hold onto food odors or stains. Choose which works best for you -- a combination of the two works well for most people.
Once your refrigerator is clean and organized you should always put things back where they belong. Keep everything in its own assigned area so you can find ingredients easily.
Take a few minutes every week to look for out-of-date leftovers and foods that have passed their prime. Throw them out, wipe the refrigerator out and enjoy the ease of organized cooking.
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