Back to School: Refrigerator Organization for Less Stress and Healthier Choices

If the kitchen is the hub of the home, the refrigerator is more like a sun at the center of the universe, orbited by family members. It is where most meals begin, an essential appliance that can also have a major effect on the food choices you make. And while you may not realize it, investing some time in organizing your refrigerator can take some stress out of the busy back-to-school season.

People rely heavily on their refrigerators, as we again learned in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic when factory shipments of refrigerators and freezers shot up 15% over the prior year. The everyday act of opening the refrigerator door can lead to a decision that may affect our day in the short term, or our health if the choices become a habit. Do you take the time to make a salad or grab a slice of leftover pizza? Should you satisfy your sugar craving with an apple or a dessert? Now, as kids head back to school and days are filled with drop-offs, pickups, activities, lunches and snacks, being overwhelmed by too many decisions to make could lead people to make the quick, easy and sometimes less healthy decision when they are deciding what to eat or put in the kids’ lunch.

“Many of my clients are able to meet their goals more efficiently with organization,” says Caroline Passerrello, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and instructor at the University of Pittsburgh. “The more hectic the schedule, the more organization matters.”

Organizing your refrigerator takes some time, but that investment has the potential to pay off in multiple ways. You’ll take some of the decisions out of your day, you will make healthy choices easier and, you may even save money by letting less of your food expire. “The fewer decisions you have to make, the better,” Passerrello says.

So when you have a few minutes between learning your fall schedule, shopping, driving and packing lunches, read what two nutrition experts have to say about organizing your refrigerator.

Plan before you dive in:

The process of organizing a refrigerator starts not at the refrigerator door, but with your grocery list. It should involve everyone in the household. “I plan out lunches for the week ahead of time and often give my kids a list of snacks to choose from,” says Dana Angelo White, sports dietitian and associate clinical professor of athletic training and sports medicine at Quinnipiac University and owner of Dana White Nutrition. “I include my kids in the process in the hopes that everyone stays happy and willing to dig in!”

“Take stock of what you need before you go, and plan to store it in a way that makes sense,” Passerrello says.

An organized refrigerator is also safe:

In a safe refrigerator, foods are rotated and stored properly. “Try your best to keep things like raw meats and fish separate from ready to eat foods,” White says. “I have also taught my three kids to ‘FIFO,’ which stands for first in, first out – basically don’t open the new milk container until the one that is already open is used up!”

Put meat, fish and other raw foods on the lowest shelf to avoid cross contamination.

Rotate as you shop:

Rotating your food (FIFO) according to the expiration date can also help you cut down on food waste. “Take stock of what you have before you go shopping,” Passerrello says. “Make sure you rearrange it when you come home so you’re not pushing stuff back.”

Healthy choices should be visible and accessible:

That means keeping them visible, toward the front, in containers that make it easy to tell what is inside.  “I try to keep the staple ingredients readily accessible in the fridge so I can make lunches as efficiently as possible.” Passerrello recommends putting the foods you want to eat at eye level. “Having the most readily available choice reduces decisions because you don’t have to think about it. We make too many decisions these days. Whatever we see, we want to grab.

Prep fruits and vegetables before you store them:

“Whether you opt for pre-cut or DIY, if they are ready to eat, the kids are more likely to eat them,” White says. “Carrots, cucumber slices, pepper strips and orange wedges are some examples for easily accessible finger foods. Along with produce, I always have things like yogurt, cheese sticks and hummus at eye level in the fridge so the kiddos can grab and go.”

Know what’s in your drawers:

Take advantage of the drawers in your refrigerator that are designed to store things like produce and cheese, but don’t just pile the items in. “If you can’t see into the drawers, make sure what you want to eat is what you see first,” Passerrello says. Maybe add a bin so not everything goes in there like a junk drawer. In the vegetable drawers, pull forward what is in there.

Consider special dietary needs:

If a family member has celiac disease, diabetes, a food allergy or another condition that requires dietary changes, do your best to make that change the norm for the household. However, as Passerello acknowledged, that is not always practical. Consider whether you need to reserve part or all of a shelf, drawer or space in the refrigerator to keep the necessary foods.

Start small and build organization into a lifestyle:

“Trying to do a complete overhaul might be too much at first,” Passerrello says. “Make a small change—pick a shelf—and commit to it.”

Finally, think about how you will stay committed to organization. “To help hold myself accountable and spark future ideas, I post my weekly plan on Instagram every Monday,” White says.

Sanitizing Cycles and Other Ways to Kill Illness-causing Bugs

NOTE: NSF was interviewed for the following blog post on cleaning vs. sanitizing. While sanitization cycles are a tool to boost the cleanliness of your home, NSF’s testing of sanitization cycles does not presently include the COVID-19 or coronaviruses.

Anyone shopping for cleaning products that can kill bacteria, viruses and other illness-causing microorganisms these days might find the shelves bare of their favorite cleaning products, as coronavirus fears have led to ongoing hypervigilance about cleaning and sanitizing. So, if  you still can’t find a steady supply of antibacterial wipes, the good news is you may already have tools at your fingertips, including the sanitizing cycles on your clothes washer and dishwasher, to kill off many of the bugs that cause colds, flu and other illnesses.

Cleaning vs. Sanitization: What’s the Difference?

It’s important to understand the difference between cleaning and sanitization.

“It’s a misconception that if you’re using vinegar to clean, you’re sanitizing,” says Mindy Costello, a registered environmental health sanitarian and NSF’s consumer product certification specialist. “Cleaning is just removing the soil. In sanitizing, you’re killing the microorganisms (bacteria, viruses and fungi).” If you want to reduce your risk of getting sick, sanitizing is the way to go.

To sanitize your dishes or laundry, both of which can be fertile grounds for viruses and bacteria, the sanitizing cycles on your clothes washer and dishwasher are among your best options. NSF tests both types of appliances for their ability to sanitize. To earn the NSF mark, clothes washers must show that the sanitizing cycle removes 99.9% of microorganisms from laundry. Dishwashers must show a reduction of 99.999%. During testing, three common organisms – staphyloccus aureus, klebsiella pneumoniae, and pseudomonas aeruginosa – added to the loads of dishes or laundry. The level of bacteria is tested afterward. The water in dishwashers that earn the NSF mark for sanitization must reach 150 degrees Fahrenheit during the final rinse and stay at or above that temperature long enough to achieve the 99.999 % reduction.

Consumers who are wondering whether their appliances have been tested for their ability to sanitize should look for the NSF mark and specification that clothes washers have met NSF-P172. For dishwashers, the standard is NSF/ANSI 184. The testing does not include the appliances’ ability to kill coronavirus, Costello says.

What surfaces should you focus on sanitizing?

While laundry (particularly damp laundry and that which has been worn by people who are ill) and dishes could harbor harmful germs and bugs, pay close attention to the surfaces of many of your appliances as well. Some of the more common breeding grounds, according to NSF, are:

  • Coffeemaker: NSF’s 2011 International Household Germ Study found yeast and mold present in 31% of households studied. In half of those, it was found in the coffee reservoir of the coffeemaker.
  • Refrigerator: Staphyloccus aureus (staph), a common and potentially harmful type of bacteria, was found in 6.4% of households. In 14% of those homes, it was found on the refrigerator handle.
  • Stove knobs: Staph was found on stove knobs in 5% of the homes where the bacteria was discovered.

The biggest misconception among the 22 families surveyed during NSF’s study was that the bathroom would be the dirtiest part of the house. In fact, it was the kitchen, with coliform bacteria –indicating possible fecal contamination—found on

  • More than 75% of dish sponges and rags
  • 45% of kitchen sinks
  • 32% of countertops
  • 18% of cutting boards

Overall, the 10 germiest items in the household, listed in order, were:

  • Dish sponges/rags
  • Kitchen sink
  • Toothbrush holder
  • Pet bowl
  • Coffee reservoir
  • Bathroom faucet handle
  • Pet toy
  • Countertop
  • Stove knobs
  • Cutting board

So sanitize your laundry and dishes regularly, and pay close attention to laundry and dishes worn and used by people who are ill. Sanitize high-contact surfaces regularly, and do dishes as soon as possible, as bacteria begins to grow after about two hours on soiled dishes left at room temperature, Costello says. There are many kinds of sanitizing products on the market, including those the EPA says will kill coronavirus. To make your own sanitizing cleaner, Costello recommends adding a tablespoon of unscented bleach to a gallon of water.

Sponges and dishrags can be sanitized by heating them in the microwave for two minutes while they’re wet, Costello says.

Fear and anxiety about viruses are running high right now. While there’s no guarantee you won’t get sick, reducing harmful microorganisms in your home can reduce your chances and give you some peace of mind that you’re controlling what you can. Stay calm and keep sanitizing!

This post was updated in August 2021 to reflect the latest sanitization information.

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