Storage Wars

The Fridge Organizing Tool You're Not Using (But Should)

Hint: If it's good for the pantry, it's good for the fridge.

February 11, 2021
Photo by Laura Metlzer Photography for Rachel Rosenthal, Rachel and Company

Welcome to Storage Wars, a new series about the best ways to store, well, everything. From how to keep produce orderly in the fridge (or not), to ways to get your oddball nooks and crannies shipshape; and yes, how to organize all those unwieldy containers once and for all—we've got you covered.


This past year, my fridge has been through tumultuous times, swinging between desert island-empty and world-is-ending-full. I’ve used the lean times to clean it out: wiping down shelves, removing expired foods, and airing it out (an open packet of baking soda really does wonders for odors!). But then, in the blink of a blizzard, it’d be full again.

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from having a very full fridge, it’s that it quickly descends into chaos. And food waste.

Some of the best tips I’ve learned from working at Food52 are around how to extend the life of food in my fridge (lower shelves for dairy and eggs! Separate ethylene-producing fruits and veggies from ethylene-sensitive ones!). But there's a separate problem that has long plagued my fridge—a complete lack of order. The biggest culprits (and victims)? My condiments, chutneys, and spreads, teeny containers of takeaway sauces, mason jars of pickled veggies, and that bottle of mold from who-knows-when stuck in the back.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“As with so many areas of organization, I've found it's not what kind of boxes or other corralling methods in the place you want to keep tidy that matters, it's what's in your head. I know everything that is in my fridge, and when I'm going to use it, and how. I don't shop for new food, unless I unexpectedly run out of something early (have I really used a whole large bunch of parsley since Friday?!) until I've used up nearly all the fresh food I have. This works because I plan all of our meals at least 7 - 10 days out, and shop accordingly. I keep a running "Note" accessible on all my devices with menus for every night (with links to recipes right there) and to-do's in the kitchen every evening. I organize prep tasks - keeping like things together works for activities, too! -- to leverage work one evening for a related meal later in the week. I have no food waste, other than scraps that can't be used for some purpose. I keep an up to date inventory of my freezer, and use that constantly while planning menus. The FIFO method rules. One of my favorite ways to manage bulky items like greens is to quickly blanch greens that will eventually be cooked, as soon as I bring them into the kitchen - be that from the garden, the farmers' market, or the store. If doing several types of greens, I don't change the water, but blanch the mildest tasting ones first, and greens like kale last. Blanching reduces volume dramatically,, while saving me time on weeknights. I wash a week's worth of lettuce, arugula, etc., and store it in very large Rubbermaid brand boxes lined and topped with paper towels. And then I make darn sure that we eat it, while it's still appealing, planning my meals with shelf life in mind. (Last summer and fall, I froze dozens of bunches of kale from my garden, squeezing out the water to compress them into 1/4 cup blocks frozen in silicone cube trays. I'm still working through that supply now. When I lived in the Bay Area, I did the same thing, but throughout the year when kale at the farmers' markets was at its best.) If this seems like "too much," I should say that I've been managing my kitchen like this for years, all while running a busy, quite interesting law practice, and getting more exercise many days than most people get in a week. (I moved to Boulder County for the cycling.) It's the small investment of planning time, and other methods noted above, that make that possible. ;o)”
— AntoniaJames
Comment

My freezer reported similar scenes of chaos: packs of samosa, waffles, and black bean burgers collapsing on each other.

On the verge of giving up, I turned to the corners of the internet (Instagram and Pinterest, of course) that order-seekers go to for a shot of hope, and there staring at me was the solution to my sorting woes: BINS. Yes, bins. The kind that go in your pantry, below the sink, and on your bathroom ledge. But also belong in your fridge.

I rushed out an email to organizing pro, Rachel Rosenthal: "Was I missing a trick," I asked? Short answer, yes—and she’s been on it all along: "It’s actually one of my number one go-to organizing hacks." Zoning, she says, is the outcome I was looking for. "As with all organizing," she continued, "it's important to create categories in your fridge: snacks for the kids, dinner ingredients, leftovers, produce—and bins help you do that."

Rosenthal especially recommends bins for their stackability—to utilize the height in your fridge. "This allows you to maximize the space by going vertical but still allows for easy access for the items stored underneath." As she said that, I had a feeling of déjà vu. Wait a minute—I was already doing that… but in my pantry.

That got me thinking: If it’s good for your pantry, it’s probably good for the fridge. After all, the same principles apply: zone, label, stack, elevate. So, why stop at bins? Why not employ all pantry organizers—trays, baskets, lazy Susans, even tiered shelf organizers? Why hadn't I thought of that before?

As it turns out, buying bins was way more exciting than I thought it’d be: there were bins to contain condiments and yogurts, for berries and yogurts, even divided bins for freezer contents. And if you’re not keen on accumulating more plastic, which I totally get, I have two words for you: wicker baskets! I came across the inspiration the other day (I’m on a roll.) and it prized my organizing brain wide open. "Farm-stand vibes for your city fridge," Caroline Mullen, Assistant Editor, called it. Try saying no to that.

Before you go, I’m going to leave you with one last thought: Once you’ve sorted your fridge into bins, you’ll be left with less drips and dribbles on your shelves. All you need to do is clean out the bins each month (or wash/replace their liners) and your fridge will need to be deep-cleaned that much less. The wins never stop coming!

My (new) favorite pantry fridge organizing tools:

1. The Home Edit Fridge Storage Solution, The Container Store

The Home Edit ladies are at it again, telling us what we need before we even realize we need it. This collection of bins is great as a combined buy, but if you're like me, you'll pick individual items to suit your needs (Pssst: I went with this, this, and this.)

Photo by The Container Store

2. Wire Basket, IKEA

Wire mesh bowls and baskets are incredibly useful to have around—just ask your fruit and eggs. You can also use these instead of plastic bins to corral bottles together, but you'll want to use liners so things don't drip onto your shelves (the very thing you want to avoid!)

Photo by IKEA U.S.A.

3. Food Storage Container Bin with Handles, Amazon

This conveniently sized storage bin (with handles for grab-n-go!) is perfect for boxed foods, condiments, and baking supplies. It's also great for using throughout the home: we can see it holding medicines, toiletries, craft and school supplies...

Photo by Amazon

4. Nested Mixing Bowls, Food52

Instead of buying bins for berries and citrus, maybe let your mixing bowls do double-duty in the fridge. And when they're not needed (my fridge in lean times), stack 'em away neatly—they nest together!

5. Pull-out under shelf drawers, Walmart

These retractable under-shelf bins can be adjusted to the size you need to maximize space utilization. Plus, those candy colors get me every time.

Photo by Walmart

Got a secret hack for organizing and sorting the contents of your fridge? Spill the beans!


This post contains products independently chosen (and loved) by our editors and writers. As an Amazon Associate and Skimlinks affiliate, Food52 earns a commission on qualifying purchases of the products we link to.

Grab your copy

It's here: Our game-changing guide to everyone's favorite room in the house. Your Do-Anything Kitchen gathers the smartest ideas and savviest tricks—from our community, test kitchen, and cooks we love—to help transform your space into its best self.

Grab your copy

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • D.E.
    D.E.
  • Rachelm
    Rachelm
  • luvcookbooks
    luvcookbooks
  • AntoniaJames
    AntoniaJames
  • christynbj
    christynbj
Arati Menon

Written by: Arati Menon

Arati grew up hanging off the petticoat-tails of three generations of Indian matriarchs who used food to speak their language of love—and she finds herself instinctually following suit. Life has taken her all across the world, but she carries with her a menagerie of inherited home and kitchen objects that serve as her anchor. Formerly at GQ and Architectural Digest, she's now based in Brooklyn.

18 Comments

D.E. February 14, 2021
The plastic storage containers in #3 and that are by mDesign are excellent. I have been buying mDesign containers for years. I just ordered the one featured here as I need that size to store all my lemons.
 
Rachelm February 12, 2021
Lazy Susans, that's what I use to corral all the small jars. I've got two of them on the top shelf, holding all the jams and sauces. Lifesavers.
 
luvcookbooks February 12, 2021
Ox the bins idea. I regularly lose things in the frig.
 
AntoniaJames February 11, 2021
We have an under-counter wine fridge that we use for all cold beverages. (It's designed to accommodate cans and beer bottles as well as wine bottles.)

It's wonderfully convenient as it frees up a certain amount of space in the fridge, while reducing the traffic in and out of the fridge. ;o)
 
tia February 11, 2021
Hah! I keep beverages in the fridge because otherwise it's half empty and a full fridge is an efficient fridge. I live alone and use my freezer a lot so there's almost always empty space in the fridge.
 
christynbj February 11, 2021
I have started using some bins to corral "like" items (2 lazy susans (one sweet, one savory for condiments and jams, etc, a bin for sliced cheese and lunch meats, a bin for thawing raw meats - definitely a saver for if/when the leak!) But I struggle with the idea of actual baskets in the fridge. I've used cookie sheets in the past, or other washable items- things always spilled when I had kids in the house. I'm fortunate though, to speak to another's comments- that my KITCHEN fridge only contains fresh ingredients, condiments, and milk, etc. All leftovers and beverages go into a smaller refrigerator in the pantry. Anyone in my family knows that anything in that pantry fridge is "fair game."
 
christynbj February 11, 2021
I have started using some bins to corral "like" items (2 lazy susans (one sweet, one savory for condiments and jams, etc, a bin for sliced cheese and lunch meats, a bin for thawing raw meats - definitely a saver for if/when the leak!) But I struggle with the idea of actual baskets in the fridge. I've used cookie sheets in the past, or other washable items- things always spilled when I had kids in the house. I'm fortunate though, to speak to another's comments- that my KITCHEN fridge only contains fresh ingredients, condiments and milk etc. All leftovers and beverages go into a smaller refrigerator in the pantry. Anyone in my family knows that anything in that pantry fridge is "fair game."
 
tia February 11, 2021
I did something like this at the beginning of 2020 but the most useful thing I did was stick two sheets of dry erase film on the fridge doors. One is for the fridge and it has an inventory, with date purchased, for all the perishable stuff (not condiments, or I'd have no room for anything else). I have the sheet zoned in the same way as the fridge, so I can easily tell where something is supposed to be. I did the same thing with the freezer on the other sheet, but I left the dates off since frozen stuff lasts so long. It's been very useful. I added a small section for things I've run out of, too.

It's not the nicest looking solution but it has helped me reduce my food waste. Especially for stuff that isn't direct line-of-sight (I'm looking at you, weird low fridge drawer).
 
AntoniaJames February 11, 2021
As with so many areas of organization, I've found it's not what kind of boxes or other corralling methods in the place you want to keep tidy that matters, it's what's in your head. I know everything that is in my fridge, and when I'm going to use it, and how. I don't shop for new food, unless I unexpectedly run out of something early (have I really used a whole large bunch of parsley since Friday?!) until I've used up nearly all the fresh food I have.

This works because I plan all of our meals at least 7 - 10 days out, and shop accordingly. I keep a running "Note" accessible on all my devices with menus for every night (with links to recipes right there) and to-do's in the kitchen every evening. I organize prep tasks - keeping like things together works for activities, too! -- to leverage work one evening for a related meal later in the week. I have no food waste, other than scraps that can't be used for some purpose. I keep an up to date inventory of my freezer, and use that constantly while planning menus. The FIFO method rules.

One of my favorite ways to manage bulky items like greens is to quickly blanch greens that will eventually be cooked, as soon as I bring them into the kitchen - be that from the garden, the farmers' market, or the store. If doing several types of greens, I don't change the water, but blanch the mildest tasting ones first, and greens like kale last. Blanching reduces volume dramatically,, while saving me time on weeknights. I wash a week's worth of lettuce, arugula, etc., and store it in very large Rubbermaid brand boxes lined and topped with paper towels. And then I make darn sure that we eat it, while it's still appealing, planning my meals with shelf life in mind.

(Last summer and fall, I froze dozens of bunches of kale from my garden, squeezing out the water to compress them into 1/4 cup blocks frozen in silicone cube trays. I'm still working through that supply now. When I lived in the Bay Area, I did the same thing, but throughout the year when kale at the farmers' markets was at its best.)

If this seems like "too much," I should say that I've been managing my kitchen like this for years, all while running a busy, quite interesting law practice, and getting more exercise many days than most people get in a week. (I moved to Boulder County for the cycling.) It's the small investment of planning time, and other methods noted above, that make that possible. ;o)
 
Nancy February 11, 2021
AJ - I do something similar to your planning on a smaller scale (cooking for one person, guests before covid, food gifts after onset when safe). But my tracking and planning is Macgyvered. Do you use one software, and if yes which?
 
AntoniaJames February 11, 2021
All current action / planning lists are in the Notes App on my iPhone and shared across several Apple devices. I have about a dozen folders set up. In my "This Week" folder, which is the first subfolder at the top, I have files for: "Recipes to Try in 2021," "February (or whatever month it is) Menus"; "Keepers" (notes kept on new recipes I want to use again); "Recipes Tried in 2021" (with notes on each, including substitutions, quantities, relevant times for recipes I've adapted for the Instant Pot, ideas for next time, etc.); Groceries (shopping list, organized by store); my "Daily To-Do" list for food prep tasks, wrapping and freezing items, such as the focaccia I made the night before, small cleaning chores I shouldn't forget, etc.; "Kitchen Goals for 2021" (reviewed every week, for ongoing implementation); and "Freezer Inventory". All prior months' menus are in that folder, too, for easy reference.

Google Drive is my workhorse for all of my documents, created in Google Docs (mostly, recipes, but also larger planning documents, such as my more involved project management documents related to holiday meals, holiday baking etc.), The search functionality in the Drive, courtesy of Google, is, has been, and always will be the best search tool on the planet. I give nearly all recipes I will use again their own TinyUrl and sharing rights, to make the lists on my Notes app more workable. Outdated lists from the Notes App are copied to Google Docs for future reference.

As with all project management, to key is regular reviews and updates on what's happened, what needs to happen, when it will happen, etc. All of the lists that run this machine are reviewed and updated frequently, usually during pockets of downtime. ;o)
 
Nancy February 11, 2021
AJ - thanks I'll look at Google Drive now and Notes App when/if I swatch from Android. Yes, agree, regular update & reviews are key...but it's so lovely to have ingredients and parts of recipes in the shute, waiting to be used....N
 
Nancy February 11, 2021
Terrific article and suggestions! I'm already doing vertical storage in the fridge, but only an elementary level. Arati you're way ahead!
 
Author Comment
Arati M. February 11, 2021
Thanks, Nancy. Let me know if you come by any cool tricks!
 
Bar49 February 11, 2021
So many bins, no place to put prepared/cooked food. Does not really work. My fridge has two vegetable bins which are sufficient and I use meat/cheese drawer for fruit. Other stuff goes on shelves. Jars etc on shelves in inside of door.
 
Author Comment
Arati M. February 11, 2021
That sounds like it works for you, so that's wonderful! I find the bins work to corral my bottles and jars. I have one narrow one and one wide one, and one divided bin for my freezer. The rest of the space, as you say, is reserved for my cooked/prepared food.
 
Jordan R. February 11, 2021
I'm pro-bins (I use them in my cupboards and a few in my own fridge) but the "organized fridge" pictures never feel realistic to me. My fridge does not contain nothing but prepped veggies, LaCroix, and two forms of sauerkraut. I need a bin that organizes half a lime, a giant bundle of CSA Swiss chard, six jars of jam that are somehow all different shapes/sizes, and a half-eaten cake.
 
Author Comment
Arati M. February 11, 2021
I hear you on that Jordan. My MO is to take the best of the ideas, and make those work for your situation (and where possible reuse/repurpose what you have). I have to say though, that the bins idea was a why-didn't-I-think-of-that moment for me.