(THE WASHINGTON POST) Is your fridge filled with fuzzy UFOs (unidentified food objects) and duplicate jars of jellies and sauces because you can't find - or remember - what's in there? Add this hard-working appliance to the spring-cleaning list and set yourself up for reduced waste, organised shelves and easier maintenance.
Although you might be tempted to start grabbing and tossing immediately, Heather Cocozza of Cocozza Organizing & Design in Arlington, Virginia, warns, "There's a big step before that."
First, plan the storage areas, or zones, within the refrigerator. Depending on your situation and the size of your appliance, you might group food types together, arrange items according to height, or set up zones for family members or roommates.
Cleaning expert Debra Johnson at the Merry Maids headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee, says you'll need a microfibre cloth, soap and water, vinegar, and maybe a soft-bristled brush. Fill the sink with warm, soapy water and have a cooler on hand if desired.
Unless you have an appliance with a dual cooling system, consider temperature when organising your fridge.
"Different zones within the refrigerator are better for some things than others," says Martha Blumenthal, owner of the Organized Sort in Alexandria, Virginia.
For example, the storage area on the door is not as cold as the inside of the refrigerator, making it a good place to store condiments and juice.
The bottom of the refrigerator in the main compartment is the coldest, so that's where you should put meat, fish and poultry. The top shelf is a good place for herbs and already-cooked items, such as leftovers. Dial the humidity down for the fruit storage drawer and up for the vegetable drawer.
Sorting and purging
Sort and group items as you remove them, Blumenthal says: "Juices together, condiments together, jellies, jams and so on."
If necessary, store things in an ice chest while you work. Throw out anything past its prime and expiration date.
Once the fridge is empty, remove the shelves and drawers and wash them with warm, soapy water in the sink.
For stubborn, sticky spills, Johnson recommends a nonabrasive paste of baking soda and water, heated vinegar or hot water. Be careful: A rag with water as hot as you can stand it won't crack a shelf, but boiling water will.
Wipe down the fridge's inside walls, floor and ceiling using a spray bottle filled with vinegar or a solution of mild dish soap and water. To wipe down freezer drawers, shelves and interior, you can also use vinegar in a spray bottle or dip a microfiber cloth in warm water.
Use the same solution for the dusty top and exterior. Take off any magnets and wipe down them and the refrigerator surface before reapplying.
To remove fingerprints from stainless-steel surfaces, buff with a dry microfibre cloth or wipe with a stainless-steel cleanser. Johnson advises putting cleansers directly on the cloth, not the appliance. Wipe with the grain.
Use a nonabrasive surface cleaner or dish soap and water with a microfibre cloth to clean the handles.
With a brush or crevice tool attachment, vacuum the vents on the front bottom of the refrigerator and the condenser coils on the back. Clean coils enable energy-efficient cooling.
Don't forget the gasket, the rubber seal around the door. "It's a very important factor when it comes to efficiency and the overall longevity of the refrigerator," says Inhye Kang, refrigerator laboratory engineer for LG Electronics.
Anything stuck between the gasket and cabinet - grimy buildup, food particles or caked-on spills - will prevent a proper seal and allow air to escape. Because moisture can accumulate where cold air leaks, mould may develop. Clean the gasket by wiping it down with a soft cloth or sponge and a mixture of dish soap and water.
Putting things back
Consider using bins to contain the clutter. "It can be hard to reach things on the back of the shelves," Cocozza says, "but if you put it in a bin, you can pull it out like a drawer."
Bins also make it easier to wipe down shelves on cleaning day and can double as caddies when you want to pull out condiments for backyard barbecues or sandwich-making sessions. Blumenthal favours clear plastic bins from InterDesign, available at the Container Store (containerstore.com). "The bins are the same depth as the refrigerator and come in different widths and heights," she says.
Ribbed fridge liners for drawers and shelves, available in pre-cut mats or DIY rolls at the Container Store, are designed to make cleaning easier. "If you have a plastic liner, you can just lift that out to the sink, rinse it off, wipe it down and put it back," Cocozza says.
Blumenthal adds: "The other thing you want to always - underlined, exclamation point - do is keep your raw meat, fish and chicken on a shallow tray to catch spills."
Sharpies and masking tape, which comes off without leaving residue, are Blumenthal's tools of choice for labeling bins, drawers, shelves and leftover containers. Put name and date on leftovers, which can look different when frozen. When freezing leftovers, Blumenthal likes to use a zippered storage bag: "Once it's frozen, you can store it upright, and it takes up hardly any room."
Johnson cleans the handles of her refrigerator daily. Research done by LG concluded that a US family of four opens their refrigerator 70 times a day on average.
Ideally, you should clean the shelves every couple of months, and wipe down the interior and exterior and vacuum the coils every six months. If that's too daunting, you can aim for one shelf or drawer a week.
Johnson says a weekly purge of the wilted and the unwanted also will help keep chaos under control. She suggests scheduling the purge to coincide with trash day. "If I'm going to be taking things out for a trash pickup, purging the fridge is part of it," she says.