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5 Ways You're Using Your Refrigerator All Wrong

Avoid these common mistakes so you'll keep food in your fridge safer and fresher

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If the kitchen is the heart of the home, then the refrigerator should be considered the heart of the kitchen. Its cool temperatures keep foods fresh and prevent harmful germs from quickly multiplying, allowing us to keep perishable foods safer and for longer amounts of time.

But just how long foods stay safe and fresh in the fridge can depend on precisely where and how you store them. It turns out there's both an art and a science to organizing your refrigerator. Here are five common mistakes to avoid in order to make the best use of this indispensable appliance.

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Mistake 1: Storing raw meat and poultry on the top shelves

Put items that require lower cooking temperatures on the top shelves and foods that require higher cooking temperatures, especially poultry, on the bottom shelf. The reason: If something leaks or spills it won’t contaminate food that may not get heated to a temperature hot enough to kill harmful germs, according to StateFoodSafety, a food safety training company. For example, the safe minimum cooking temperature for poultry is 165 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), but it's only 145 degrees for seafood. Leftovers and casseroles should also be heated to 165 degrees, so store them on the bottom shelf, too.

Mistake 2: Keeping your eggs on the door shelf

Foods stored on the door shelves fluctuate in temperature moreso than those kept inside the fridge, so avoid putting perishables there. Keep the door closed as much as possible, recommends the USDA, to prevent temperature increases. Also note that even when the door is closed, the temperature inside the refrigerator tends to be higher on the top shelf than the bottom shelf, so keep eggs on lower shelves where it's colder.

Mistake 3: Misusing the crisper drawers

Yes, there's a logic to which fruits and vegetables should go into which crisper drawers, since many are designed with different humidity levels to preserve freshness. Generally, produce that is thin-skinned should be stored at a higher-humidity level. Certain fruits and vegetables, especially those that release ethylene gas as they ripen, should be stored in low humidity. Here's a sampling, according to appliance makers KitchenAid and General Electric.

Foods best for high-humidity drawer:

  • asparagus
  • broccoli
  • brussels sprouts
  • carrots
  • celery
  • cherries
  • corn
  • lettuce and other leafy greens
  • spinach
  • tomatoes

Try the FoodKeeper app

The USDA offers a free mobile app for Apple and Android users that provides information on how to best store over 400 food and beverage items. It also highlights cooking tips for different types of meats, shows the latest food recalls, and gives an option to log your purchases and receive notifications when your food is about to expire. You can search the app’s food catalog online here.

Foods best for low-humidity drawer:

  • apples
  • avocados
  • grapes
  • melons
  • mushrooms
  • oranges and tangerines
  • peaches and nectarines
  • pears
  • raspberries
  • strawberries

Mistake 4: Waiting too long to put away hot food

You don’t need to wait for your food to cool before you put it in the refrigerator. Hot food won’t harm it. However, if you divide large amounts of leftovers into shallow containers they will cool more quickly, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The risk in leaving food out to cool for too long is that foodborne germs can begin to multiply rapidly at temperatures between 40 degrees and 140 degrees, a range the USDA calls the "danger zone." The FDA recommends keeping your fridge set to 40 degrees or below for this reason.

Mistake 5: Overpacking the fridge

Cold air needs to circulate around refrigerated foods to keep them properly chilled, the FDA says. Avoid tightly stacking food containers or using any materials that prevent the air from flowing freely. Keep vents unobstructed.

Refrigeration tips

Marinate food in the refrigerator. Bacteria can grow rapidly on food if it is left to marinate at room temperature. Make sure to never reuse marinating liquid as a sauce unless it is first brought to a rapid boil.

Clean the refrigerator regularly and wipe spills immediately. This helps reduce the growth of bacteria like listeria, which can spread to other foods.

Check expiration dates. Remember, a “use by” date is when the manufacturer recommends eating the food by for best flavor or quality. The date is not for food safety.

Be alert for spoiled food. Anything that looks or smells suspicious should be thrown away. Mold is a sign of spoilage and should be discarded.

Source: FDA

Routine refrigerator maintenance

Make it a habit to routinely throw out foods that are no longer safe to eat. Keep in mind that a “use by” date indicates when the product may not have the best flavor or quality; it is not a food-safety date. (The exception is infant formula and some baby foods.) But, if a food looks, smells or tastes questionable, throw it out, says the FDA. 

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Whenever something spills in the fridge, clean it up immediately with hot, soapy water and then rinse. Avoid solvent cleaners that may pass on a chemical taste to food. To fight odors, place an opened box of baking soda on a refrigerator shelf.

The Right Way to Freeze Fresh Food for Later

The condenser coil should be cleaned regularly to remove dirt, lint or other debris. This will keep your refrigerator running efficiently, according to the USDA. The coil is typically located under the refrigerator behind the base grille or at the rear. Refer to your owner's manual or visit the manufacturer's website for more on cleaning the condenser coil.

Editor's note: This story, originally published Dec. 10, 2021, has been updated with additional information.

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