USU Extension: Refrigerator Secrets

How do we keep that very important appliance functioning at its peak so we can enjoy our holiday foods without incidence?

Teresa C. Hunsaker, USU Extension, Weber County, Family and Consumer Science Education proivdes 5 secrets to answer that question.


Proper storage practices can help you keep foods fresher longer and minimize the risk of food borne illness, odors, dried out food.

First, start with good options for covering or containing the food. Use a good quality plastic wrap to cover containers, or select bowls with good plastic lids. Divide and store leftovers in shallow containers less than two inches deep, for rapid, even cooling. Larger or deeper containers take too long to cool and can cause food safety problems. If you need to make an ice bath around a container before placing it in the refrigerator, then do so, to insure proper cooling.

Be sure stored foods are tightly wrapped. When using a sealable bag, try to squeeze out as much air as possible. This will conserve space and help to prevent freezer burn. If using a plastic container, choose the smallest container that will hold your food.

Make a point of using stored foods before opening or purchasing more and get to know how long various foods last in the fridge or freezer. Check the expiration or “use by” dates. For a complete chart of refrigerator food storage times check out this website: , it’s great!!
Don’t like to use plastic? Use glass storage containers with airtight stainless steel lids if you can. You can store leftovers in glass or ceramic serving bowls and use a dinner plate to cover the top.

To help with the overall storage issue, plan to have some organization to the refrigerator too. Start this process by creating spaces for “like with like”, for instance, dairy with dairy, meat with meat and so on. If your fridge is not equipped with a drawer for dairy, create your own drawer. Buy a long narrow plastic bin that runs the depth of your shelf. Put all of your cheeses, yogurt, sour cream into this container. Maybe a similar bin could help with lunchmeats and other meats. Leftovers and prepared foods should have their own zone on the short shelf. It is so nice to have one location in the fridge to place the containers of leftovers—they aren’t as easily lost and forgotten—plus, it makes it convenient to grab for those packing a lunch. Note: when purchasing plastic storage containers, buy square or rectangular shapes—they fit easier in your space than round containers do.

Odor Prevention

Nothing can be more unappetizing than to open the fridge and be hit with some terrible odor. Besides a generally good cleaning every so often, here are some other ideas to help.


Once a week or before going to the grocery store, take inventory of the contents of your refrigerator. Remove outdated foods.


Always store leftovers, opened packages of meats and cheeses, perishable items, and strong foods in separate airtight containers. Foods which remain uncovered absorb odors from other foods and also contaminate other items, like fruits and vegetables. Wrap odorous foods such as onions to avoid smells from mixing with other foods. Separately wrap meats and poultry to avoid the mess of the meats juices leaking.


The meat drawer is the coldest part of your refrigerator and the most ideal place to store and thaw meats. Always use the drawer to avoid cross contamination of bacteria and food borne illness. Also, clean the drawer when necessary. When meat juices have spilled over into the drawer, remove drawer and wash thoroughly with hot water and dish soap.


Clean spills up immediately! Use hot water and dish soap to wipe spilled food items from drawers, racks, and refrigerator walls and shelves. Un-cleaned surfaces lead to bacteria, mold, mildew, odor, and possible food borne illness.


Many appliance stores and rental outlets clean refrigerators with toothpaste, a surprisingly effective product in removing embedded, strong odors. Always use a non-abrasive toothpaste. Apply as needed and scrub with your regular sponge, brush, or rag. Rinse thoroughly and dry. Your refrigerator will be left sparkling white and minty fresh!


Baking soda has been an odor cure-all for centuries. To rid your fridge of offensive odors, add a cup of baking soda to a bowl or plate and place inside refrigerator for 24-hours. Remove and properly dispose of baking soda when done. You can also add an entire box of baking soda to the back of refrigerator to help cut down on odor contamination and keep your refrigerator smelling fresh year round.


Activated charcoal is another great odor absorber. Place a dish or bowl of charcoal inside the refrigerator, and allow it to soak up odors for several hours to a few days. Charcoal works well on sour odors. Remove dish when finished and dispose of charcoal.


Fill a plate with freshly ground coffee and place on an empty shelf inside the refrigerator to remove offensive odors. Leave plate in place for several days. This works well on strong odors.


Cut an orange in half, remove the pulp and fill the shell with salt. Place it in your refrigerator for a pleasant, citrus scent.


Proper cleaning of your refrigerator consists of more than just wiping out the vegetable drawer, although that is important. You should clean up spills and mishaps on a regular basis and you should unplug the refrigerator remove all the food and remove all shelving, drawers, etc. Wipe down the inside of the refrigerator with a mixture of 2 tablespoons of baking soda and 1 quart of warm water and wipe dry. Or, use a solution of 4 parts water to one part bleach. Hand wash the shelving, drawers, etc. in warm soapy water. Make sure to rinse thoroughly and wipe dry. It is probably best not to use hot water. Also be sure to clean the door gasket to insure a good seal. Also, make sure they are tight. If there are cracks or gaps in the seal, replace it. An easy test for the seal is to close the door on a standard sheet of paper. The paper should not slide around or fall out, and you should feel some resistance when you pull it out. If not, replace the seal immediately; you’re wasting at lot of money and energy.

While you are waiting for the inside and the removable parts to dry it is a good time to remove all the artwork, magnets and sticky notes from the outside of the cabinet and give it a good cleaning with warm soapy water. Wipe dry and begin putting the removable stuff back inside.

As important as it is to clean the inside, it is as important to clean the outside and underneath. If your refrigerator has a drip pan, remove it from underneath the refrigerator. Empty and scrub. Rinse and allow to dry before replacing. At the bottom of the cabinet in the front is a grill, it will unsnap from the front, now you have access to all those dust bunnies and other treasures!

Get a vacuum with a wand attachment and vacuum all that dirt, dust, and other debris from under the fridge. You may want to pull the refrigerator out and vacuum it from behind as well to make sure you have really got all of it out. Gently brush or vacuum the dust that can accumulate on the condenser coils located on the back of the refrigerator or freezer; this can sometimes save as much as 30 percent in electric consumption.


The best kept secret to all those containers in our refrigerator is proper labeling!!! Get out some masking tape and a permanent marker and get ready to be so pleased with the results. So many of our containers are not “see through” and this one habit alone makes all the difference in getting food used up.
Get in the habit of putting the date on the outside of the containers you buy. Do it right while you are putting the food away after grocery shopping. While many of the foods you have purchased will have their own “expiration” date, you can quickly and readily see the date you put it into the fridge.

Next, on those containers that are your own re-usable containers for leftovers, write the date and the food on a piece of masking tape and place it on the lid or side. If the container is clear simply write the date on a piece of tape and label the container that way. No more guessing just how long it has been since you made that casserole!


For optimum food safety and food quality our food should be used up or thrown away within reasonable time frames. While at the grocery store be sure to check each items expiration or “use by” date before even placing it in your cart.

Types of Dates

• A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.

• A “Best if Used By (or Before)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

• A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.

• “Closed or coded dates” are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.

Safety After Date Expires
Except for “use-by” dates, product dates don’t always refer to home storage and use after purchase. “Use-by” dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates. But even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality — if handled properly and kept at 40° F or below.
Once home, as mentioned already, place the date on it for when you purchased it. Just write right on the outside of the container. Try to commit a portion of time each week or so to going through the refrigerator and checking dates. Some studies indicate that we lose about 50% of our food dollar to “outdated” food—either lost food in the refrigerator or on our pantry shelves. That is a lot of wasted money!

NOTE: For food safety maintain your refrigerator temperature between 36° and 40°F/2-5°C and your freezer between 0° and 5°F/ -18 and -15°C; colder settings than this can waste up to 25 percent more energy. Fill your refrigerator and freezer, but do not overload. A full refrigerator (and freezer) stays colder longer than a partially filled one. Overloading your refrigerator or freezer, however, may prevent adequate airflow.

For more information on overall food labeling practices check out: or check out the USU Extension/Weber County website at or call (801) 399-8200

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