By Shannon Santschi

Deep cleaning your refrigerator is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the pending winter holidays, but it may be the perfect way to kick off the season. Why? You’ll be placing a lot of demand on your fridge soon, loading it up with turkey, ham, green beans, mac and cheese, pies, eggnog, and Aunt Mary’s fruitcake!

We have the folks at Whirlpool to thank for originating and publicizing November 15th as National Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day—a day to prepare your fridge for the inevitable month-long onslaught of food.

How to Clean

1. Have a cooler with ice ready for storage of must-stay-cold foods.

2. Completely empty your fridge, including your freezer.

3. If you have complicated shelving, take a picture or video of the fridge before removing the shelving so you’ll know exactly how to replace it.

4. Remove and wash shelving and drawers in hot soapy water. Let them air dry while you tackle the rest of the fridge.

5. Spray down walls, tops, and bottoms with your choice cleanser or baking soda solution. Use a toothbrush or Q-tips to clean the rubber sealing around the door. This area is notorious for mildew.

6. Dry and reinstall shelves and drawers.

7. Before returning food to the fridge, wipe down containers and examine expiration dates. If in doubt, toss it out.

Organizing & Minimizing Food Loss

For food safety purposes, you may want to rethink the placement of food in your refrigerator. Cristel Moubarak, a Canadian dietician and founder of nutriFoodie, advises shelving your foods in the fridge in this order:

  • Use the top shelf for leftovers and cooked foods.
  • The middle shelf is best for dairy products and eggs. (This is often the coldest shelf.) Note: Avoid storing milk on door shelves as they are often warmer than the fridge’s interior.
  • Store raw meats on the bottom shelf. (This will help to avoid cross-contamination of foods from dripping meats.)
  • Put fruits and veggies in crisper drawers.

A few more considerations:

  • According to the nonprofit Feeding America, nearly 40% of all food in America is wasted. For the average American family of four, approximately $133 in produce is discarded each month.  Moving forward, adopt a more minimalist approach when purchasing groceries and pocket the savings for your kids’ college fund.
  • Buy and use glass or clear plastic containers like these so you can easily see what you have to eat.
  • Most refrigerators have a single light. The fridge looks great when it’s empty, but when you start filling it up, the lower shelves get shafted….and what isn’t seen is often forgotten. David Andora, a self-described jack-of-all-trades, solved his problem by installing LED lighting from top to bottom in his fridge. He provides details on how to do it here. If you’re not handy or adventurous, consider hiring someone to install extra lighting in your refrigerator.

The Science

Aside from gaining a Pinterest-worthy fridge, science gives us some weighty reasons for cleansing and purging our refrigerators.

Your refrigerator’s primary function is to help slow the spoilage of food. Fresh milk, for example, is generally only safe to drink for about 2 hours at room temperature. Still, when properly refrigerated, bacterial growth is slowed so that a carton is usually good for about seven days. Here are a few guidelines for the proper refrigeration and maintenance of a sanitary environment in your icebox:

  • Keep your refrigerator at or just below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Warmer than ideal temps encourage bacterial growth and, thus, food spoilage. Purchase a refrigerator thermometer to maintain an accurate read on the temperature.
  • Avoid overfilling your fridge. Too much stuff hinders airflow, causing your refrigerator to be warmer than it should. This creates a breeding ground in which bacteria will thrive and multiply.
  • Wipe up all spills immediately. Spills can become hotbeds for bacteria. Bacteria can become airborne, spreading throughout the refrigerator, contaminating other foods.
  • The same goes for condiments – keep openings and containers free of sticky residue as these areas and can become incubators for germs.
  • Eat raw meat within two days of purchase or freeze it. Eat cooked leftovers by the 3rd day.

Happy Thanksgiving, Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!

Shannon Santschi is a contributing writer for Smart Women Smart Money Magazine. Comments or questions can be sent to [email protected].