Cleaning Out the Refrigerator

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It’s a dirty job. But, somebody’s got to do it. And if I don’t miss my guess, that somebody could be you.

Never fear! FishMama is here with an 8 Step Program Toward a Cleaner, Happier Refrigerator. And believe me, I speak from experience….

Prior to our recent vacation, I did a major refrigerator overhaul and I was so glad that I did. We had been battling illnesses for the first three weeks of September.

Dimished appetites resulted in a lot of little leftovers and a tired mama contributed to a very messy fridge. Definitely not something you want to come home to after vacation.

But, it doesn’t take illness and fatigue to wreck havoc on your fridge. Just the business of life can get ya. So, ready to get cleaning? Let’s go.

But first a note from my legal team: I am not a medical or nutritional professional nor do I work for the US Department of Agriculture or the food police. If you know better, then do it your way. I make no promises that mine is the best way. ๐Ÿ˜‰

A close up of a dirty fridge shelf.

1. Empty

Empty the refrigerator of all its contents. Really. It will be okay.

This presupposes that you have a clean sink and clean counters. (Sorry, babe, but its true.) Remove everything from the shelves, from the door, from the drawer, from the little storage nooks and crannies.

2. Wipe and Wash

Once the fridge is empty, wipe every shelf, removing them if necessary. I took out all the drawers and door inserts and washed those with warm, soapy water, as directed by my refrigerator’s manufacturer. I’ve also read that baking soda and water is a good refrigerator cleaner.

3. Purge

Throw away any leftover food that is older than three days or wasn’t all that great the first time. It’s not going to improve with age.

Scan your condiments. If you haven’t used it in the last couple months and don’t foresee using it anytime soon, give it the “heave ho” and make a note not to buy it again if you really won’t use it in a timely fashion. I ditched old BBQ sauce and peanut butter that my daughter is allergic to. I also said farewell to ethnic condiments that just don’t fit our tastes, but which we were willing to try once upon a time.

4. Rinse, load, and run

Remember all those leftovers? Well, if there were beakers of science experiments containers that need to be washed, rinse those. Load them into the dishwasher and get it going. I have to confess after several weeks of illness in our house, I had a lot of dishes to wash. (Yikes!)

And, no, that wasn’t all from the fridge. I cleaned it right after dinner so I could add the dishes to the dinnertime cycle.

5. Wipe bottles, jars, and containers

Take a damp wash cloth and wipe down any bottles, jars and containers that you will be returning to the fridge.

6. Organize

As you return condiments and other refrigerated items to the refrigerator, organize them in a logical way. Place unopened containers behind their opened counterparts, so that the oldest is used first. I found out that we had two milk jugs opened. Oops! That’s what happens when your fridge is a wreck!

For more ideas, check out these suggestions from Organizing Junkie.

7. Use what you have

Now that you’ve touched everything at least twice, you have a good idea of what’s in your refrigerator, what needs to be replaced, and what needs to be used up. Build this week’s menu plan from what’s there as it is probably the most perishable food in your house.

8. Repeat monthly.

If you do steps 6 and 7 weekly and wipe up spills as they occur, you can easily only clean the refrigerator once a month. This works for me.

What’s your method to keeping your fridge clean and happy?

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  1. great ideas. I also would like to add that you clean your fridge the day before trash day, so that it’s not just sitting in your garbage can outside attracting dogs and undesired odor.

  2. What I have done in the last few years is to put down hand towels on each shelf, and also towels folded in half on the door shelves. This makes is so much easier for me. About every 2 months or so I go through everything, change the towels and put down new ones, colors depending on the season or holiday! It saves a lot of scrubbing, just toss in the washer!

    Also, I put wax paper on top of the fridge before I place anything up there, and every 6 months or so, I remove everything, and take off the dirty, dusty paper and just toss and replace! No dirty scrubbing on a step stool.

    1. Nice ideas! I usually take all of my shelves and drawers out, fill a very clean bathtub with water and baking soda, let soak , scrub and air dry. (I actually do this about once a month. I am sure I’d have to do this less frequently if I used your ideas). I basically clean my refridgerator every week. Why? Because if I let it go too long, I can not deal with it, the most disgusting job to clean a really unkempt refridge i can barely tolerate it. So, i clean very frequently.That is my incentive!

  3. Milk and dairy products should be stored withIN the refrigerator on the shelves rather than in the door —
    “the door is the warmest spot in your fridge. Every time you open the door, items stored there are directly exposed to your warmer kitchen. Items in the very back of the shelves, on the other hand, stay the coolest. Milk and eggs are highly perishable and should be kept at a steady, cool temperature. The door shelves are better suited to less perishable items like ketchup, salad dressing, soda, and jams and jellies.”

    I moved ours out of the door about 1 1/2 years ago and find that is keeps a little longer….

    1. This post is a little old (5+ years!) Our milk and eggs are now on the inside, with milk on the bottom shelf, thanks to a tip from a reader. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. I started putting plastic zip lock bowls in the veggie drawer to hold onions and anything else that needs a home and potatoes in another one lemons. I can get 2 big ones and one small one in the drawer I lay celery and lettuce broccoli on top??? It definitely keeps the drawer cleaner and I can easily see my inventory?? I need something for my meat drawer?

  5. Whenever I open something, before I put it in the refrigerator, I date it with magic marker- makes it easy to clean out and there’s no question of how long has this been in here.

    1. I recently started dating things, but for a different reason — I am interested in how long it takes to use some of the items so I know about when to start looking for them to go on sale. I like your reasoning as well though!! I also started labeling leftovers with what they are and the date they were made…. we reuse containers and I KNOW we don’t have that much yogurt in our refrigerator! :-p

  6. Reviewing all of the posts regarding fridges and science experiences reminded me of a situation I experienced many years ago. We lived in the country and had several big dogs. A very strange and unpleasant odor was emanating from the fridge yet despite numerous efforts by my daughter and me, the disgusting smell continued. It was not until we pulled out the very bottom drainage shelf that the mystery became self-evident. Because we were in the country we always had little field mice coming and going. They had apparently stored dog food(from the garage) on the drainage shelf. The reputed heating, cooling and water drainage had effectively created a dog food and mouse fecal cake. Barf! Barf! Barf!
    We replaced the shelf, added a mouse trapline and made sure the dog food was stored in a tightly secured container.
    I posted this for the benefit of Country Moms who may experience the same mystery over an elusive odor. Don’t forget the drainage shelf whilst cleaning every month or detecting an offending odor of unknown origin.

  7. I love your tips for cleaning the fridge! Keeping the fridge clean is something I struggle with more than anything else around the house, and it drives my husband bonkers. We frequently have science experiments in our fridge, and it is almost always stuffed full. I’m going to use these techniques to clean out my fridge while my son is at preschool tomorrow!

  8. I love to clean the fridge weekly. My family is not crazy about leftovers, so I don’t create them. I’ve managed to alter recipes new and old to fit our family size. This also cuts down on “thrown out food.”
    Another help for my fridge is to buy paper towels with different sized sheets and then line each shelf and drawer. Catches the major spills and leaks. Saves so much time. At the end of the week, I take everything out, scrub it all down, and re-line. Holiday paper towels are a nice festive touch.

  9. You motivated me! I cleaned out my fridge before I went grocery shopping today. It was already empty! ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. One thing I like to do is put an old newspaper in the bottom of the vegetable and meat drawers (well, the meat drawer was probably meant for fruit, but I use it this way). This makes it so much easier to clean next time around!

  11. yikes I think my fridge could use a good cleaning. Not that it smells or anyting.. just things get split, and not wiped up…. Its such a yuckie job!

  12. I love the comment about leftovers not improving with age. So true.

    Someone else said this also but I clean out my fridge the night before my hubby takes the garbage off(no pick up here). This helps prevent the science experiments that we used to have.

    Now if only I could get him to take it off more often…

  13. I like to keep my fridge organized to faciliate using leftoverss, not “losing” things in the fridge and finding things easily.

    One shelf is for drinks. One shelf is for leftovers. One shelf is for dairy, like eggs, cottage cheese, yogurt. On the door, one shelf is only for dressings, another for condiments.

    One drawer is only veggies, one only fruits.

    I used a permanent marker to label the shelves. It works for us!

  14. There’s nothing I love more than a clean fridge! (well maybe a really organized pantry but I’m kinda nutty like that!)
    Since I do most of my shopping on a monthly basis, my fridge gets cleaned right before I do my shopping. And like you, I will frequently make my menu adjust to what’s left in the refrigerator, just so I can use it all up before I have to shop again.
    But for some reason I can’t handle taking everything out at once to wipe the inside out. I *try* to handle the spills as the happen.
    Thanks for the great reminder to bless our families with a sparkling refrigerator!

  15. I hate cleaning out the fridge! Doing the whole fridge at once really bothers me, so I break it up. I try to clean out one shelf (and the door compartment across from that shelf) each week. I have 3 shelves & 2 drawers so this way, each shelf is cleaned about once a month and it doesn’t become one of those dreaded chores that I keep putting off!

  16. Um…one small comment: Milk shouldn’t be stored on the door of the fridge, especially if you have kids who have the tendency to leave the door open for long periods of time. The constant up-and-down of the temp will make it spoil faster. I keep mine in the coldest section of the fridge (bottom shelf for me).

    “Store milk in the back of the refrigerator and away from the refrigerator door if possible to keep the temperature at a lower and more constant temperature. Frequent opening and closing of the refrigerator door welcomes warm air in, which interacts primarily with foods immediately inside the doors.”

  17. On garbage day eve (Tuesday night at this house) I go through the fridge and take out all the uneaten leftovers from the week and anything esle that needs to be pitched and put it to the curb to be taken the next morning. I do a wipe down and then fill it the next day when I go grocery shopping. Once a month I do the drawers and shelves out! Those pesky onion skins get every where!

  18. Lovely job! When are you coming to do my two refrigerators and upright freezer?? I’m open most of next month. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Actually, my 20 year old just did our main refrigerator a few days ago. I thought I must be dreaming. Thankfully, no one woke me up!

  19. I wipe down one shelf each night either while putting dinner together ( sink full of dish water anyways) or afterwards before I run the dishwasher. I do this with the 2 refrigs in the house and the one in the garage gets done when I pull the meat from the deep freezer for the week. This way I know what to use up THAT week. A month later I would be having science exiperments to sell the grandkids….hum….income….maybe I should think about that

  20. I have 2 fridges and a stand up freezer! I clean out the fridges the day before or morning of receiving our produce from the CSA. I’ll take a few minutes to organize the remaining produce and prep it for weekend meals, slice the fruits for weekend fruit salad, and get ready for the incoming goods. This is a great reminder to purge what you don’t need and keep it clean!

    ๐Ÿ™‚ Allie

  21. And, I definitely did not mean my comment to sound like I have it all together and my fridge never gets disgusting! It certainly does. It’s just a good tip I TRY to do ๐Ÿ™‚

  22. This is so funny. I actually just came over here to get a few more details on my review of your amazing blog, and I JUST cleaned my fridge out this AM of 1.) left over pickles from about ten years ago, 2.) organic peanut butter that went back about a month ago, 3.)I FOUND a new box of chicken stock, but when I checked the exp. date, it too, had to be tossed, and a partridge in a pear tree.

    GREAT post. Thanks for the inspiration, as usual.

  23. I try to give it a once over when I return from the store, maybe once a month or so. But, no super overall cleaning, since I don’t have the energy for that… instead a quick scrub of the shelves and wipe out the walls. If I’m super rushed or find something especially gross, I love to use disinfecting wipes.

  24. I was just thinking this morning that it’s time to clean out the fridge. We have company coming – which is usually my signal to purge. Wiping down the shelves/drawers doesn’t happen quite so often….

  25. A good friend taught me to give my fridge a quick once over BEFORE going to the store. If you do it every time, it’s not a big job and I really try to do this. Makes putting away groceries so much easier too ๐Ÿ™‚

  26. Hmmm. I. NEED. TO. DO. THIS. SO. BADLY. Thanks for the reminder (not that I needed it really as a bottle I tried to move yesterday was STUCK to the shelf (I have no idea what spilled….). It’s embarassing, but the reality is, there are a lot of things that I would rather do than clean my fridge! But, sigh, it’s time.

  27. I just did this in part of my nesting preparation for Baby #4! I did not realize just how gross things had become until I couldn’t stand the thought of opening the fridge because of the pungent odor! Thanks for the reminder! (Could you remind me monthly? :))

  28. Hmmm. So should I admit that my entire fridge HAD to be cleaned yesterday because there was an unidentifiable smell that was oh-so-unpleasant to this pregnant nose.

    It turns out it was a small bottle of chocolate milk that had exploded in the back of the fridge. Yes, exploded.

    The date was from June 15th.


    Needless to say, my fridge is clean and sparkly today! Maybe if I had taken your advice and chosen to wipe it down, say in the past 3 MONTHS this little incident would not have happened.