A little nudge to dig into the back of your refrigerator and remove condiments that have been sitting there a bit too long is often a welcomed reminder. November 15 is National Clean Out Your Fridge Day, and to celebrate, we’re sharing some tips on how to tackle this daunting task and other best practices linked to safe food handling. Not only will cleaning out your fridge give you more storage space, but it can help keep your personal food supply safer to eat and reduce your household waste.
What You Should Throw Away
Check Date Labels
Before you purge any questionable packaged goods, there are a few things to remember about date labels on food packages. Most dates are indicative of an item’s quality, not safety, so don’t be too quick to throw away everything away that is past the posted date. The terms “Best if Used By,” “Sell-By,” “Use-By,” and “Freeze-By” all tell a consumer when a food may start declining in flavor and quality, but none of these phrases precede a safety-based expiration date. In fact, most of the dates listed on products are not regulated by federal food safety agencies but are given voluntarily by food manufacturers. It is important to note that dates on infant formula are federally regulated and any formula should be disposed of when it is past the listed date.
Look at the Condition of the Food Itself
Beyond checking date labels, if you are trying to determine if something in your refrigerator should stay or go, trust your gut and your nose. Characteristics to look out for are food that is softer than usual, discolored, has an unpleasant odor, is slimy, or has visible mold. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Ask USDA” tool can also help guide your decision-making when it comes to knowing if a food is still safe to consume. Think of the phrase “when in doubt, throw it out”—it is better to get rid of something than risk a potential foodborne illness by eating it.
Foods to Keep
Deciphering if a food is safe for consumption is one challenge; knowing what to do with safe foods is another. Before throwing away perfectly good leftover food scraps, pause and think about how the food can be used creatively. Vegetable scraps from produce that is still in good condition, including peels and stems, can be used for soups or dips, or can be stored in the freezer to later be used in homemade broth. Additionally, bone broth can be made from any leftover bones; simply store the bones in the freezer and you’ll be ready for soup season in no time.
How to Store Food for the Future
To make cleaning out the refrigerator easier in the future, prepare storage space now for using food efficiently. To begin, the fridge should be kept at or below a temperature of 40°F; the freezer temperature should be kept at or below 0°F to keep food fresh as long as possible. Fresh fruits and vegetables especially have short shelf lives; if peeled, cut, or cooked, they should be stored in the fridge or freezer within two hours—and will only last for a few days. Uncooked produce varies depending on how quickly it should be used, and the FoodKeeper app can help you determine the time frame for each individual item. The crisper drawers which are generally located near the bottom of refrigerators are ideal storage spots for produce as the humidity control can help elongate the shelf life of some items.
Proper placement of other food in the fridge is necessary to help it stay fresh and safe as long as possible. It may be tempting, but dairy and eggs should not be kept inside the refrigerator doors. They need a stable temperature that can only be achieved on an inner shelf. This will help to prevent bacteria growth that may lead to spoilage. Condiments and sauces, however, should be safe being stored inside refrigerator doors. This is because most contain preservatives that help them stay safe and stable for a few months. Raw meat and poultry should always be placed carefully inside the fridge, and should be well wrapped and placed on a plate to prevent leaking onto other refrigerated items; this is necessary to prevent cross-contamination of other foods.
Even with proper storage, it is important to periodically check all foods, both fresh and packaged, for signs of spoilage. Doing so can prevent an overcrowded fridge, which will give proper air circulation and appropriate cooling of food. Plus, a properly stocked, organized fridge will make it easier to keep track of your food inventory to use everything before it has a chance to spoil.
This article was written by Courtney Schupp, MPH, RD.