Tell me if this sounds familiar. Your fridge is full of food: some you just bought, some that you had earmarked for a recipe that didn’t quite pan out, and some that’s a nightmarishly different color than it was when you brought it home. You’re hungry. You open up the fridge, stare at these options meditatively, and survey what’s available.
You come to a decision.
You close the door, you grab a bag of chips from the pantry, and you remind yourself to get less complicated food next time you’re at the store. (You will forget to do this. It’s fine. This is part of the circle of life.)
If you, too, find yourself in a food rut, wasting food, or not using your fridge in a way that makes you particularly happy, it’s time to do something about that.
Your fridge can be a valuable tool that can make meal planning, healthy eating, and efficient food use easy. It’s much more than a place that keeps things cold: it can serve as the center of our food-making strategy. Let’s talk more about why we should prioritize some fridge-care into our weekly calendars, and then discuss a few helpful hacks to make it happen.
Cleaning your fridge effectively can be a form of self-care
There’s a lot of surprising new research coming out about the psychology of cleaning and kitchen chore time. As it turns out, setting aside a few minutes to reset our spaces can do a lot more than just prep our culinary canvases for a week of delicious success.
Cooking and its accompanying activities (think: measuring, chopping, unpacking groceries, even wiping down glass fridge shelves and doing dishes) have a beneficial effect on our brains. Completing these chores, large and small, can give us a sense of accomplishment and control (even if it seems like everything else in our lives is chaotic and confusing, we can prep our veggies). The relatively mindless activities that accompany a fridge reset—wiping, cooking basics, date-checking, and managing food storage containers—allow our brains to rest. Meditative cleaning is a true two-birds, one-stone approach to emotional regulation and getting through your to-do list.
One recent study (conducted by Clorox) even found that there was a clear correlation between happiness and cleaning habits. The researchers conducting the study concluded that there was an association between regular cleaning and “improved relaxation (indicated by 80% of surveyed study participants), heightened focus (77%), better sleep (72%), and increased productivity (72%).”
Think of it this way: if you’ve ever stopped to savor a scroll-stopping Instagram picture featuring a color-blocked fridge, know that the same little frisson of joy that visual gives you is definitely amplified in person. It’s a little luxury that you can give yourself.
Wondering how to make it happen? Here are a few helpful tips to get started.
Create a staging space
Start by clearing off space in your kitchen—perhaps on the table and counter—and label areas in logical groups for your food proclivities (e.g., “veggies,” “dairy,” “condiments”). When you take items out of your fridge, check to see if they’re still safe to eat, then move them to their groupings. This gives you an actual idea of how much room specific types of food need in your fridge. It wasn’t until after I did this that I realized I actually needed to allocate two shelves to my towering hot sauce collection, and that we probably didn’t actually need an entire cheese shelf (I don’t eat dairy).
Wipe down your empty fridge
The experts at Epicurious note that vinegar is a good choice for this job. It’s cost-effective, and it works: “The acid breaks down grease and grime, and when mixed with hot water in a spray bottle, it becomes a food-safe cleaner that’s perfect for any gunk that might have accumulated on refrigerator shelves.” If you’ve got the time, completely taking out any removable shelves or drawers will help you get into every little corner, but that’s definitely a bonus-points step.
Shelf by shelf, strategically put your food back in its rightful home
Two things to remember here: first, if possible, put in less than you took out. Consolidate, get rid of expired food, or pointedly earmark and set aside ingredients that need to be used today. Second, wipe off the outside of food containers before you put them in your beautifully clean fridge.
Select culinary blocks for easy mealtime success
So, you’ve just cleaned out your fridge, and you’re wondering what to do next.
Your food is organized; your labels are all turned in the right direction; and you feel like you have a tiny grocery store, sans price tags, set up neatly in your home.
To finish off your reset ritual, it’s a good idea to take some of that food you just remembered you had and repurpose it into something easy, tasty, and multifunctional that will support you and your loved ones throughout the entire week. If you’re also grocery shopping, now’s a great time to pick up foods that mesh nicely with what you already have—and that fit neatly in the space you have available.
Why take the extra time to go the extra mile here? I don’t know about you, but, often, I find that the path leading from a fridge bursting with lovely ingredients to a fridge that has ready-to-eat dishes gets narrower and harder to walk the later in the day (or week) it gets. I find that I need a little more flexibility than straight-up meal-prepping twenty meals each Sunday. However, if I only have a bunch of raw food in my fridge, then when I get hungry I’m going to grab a spoon and go straight for the peanut butter instead of taking the time to think out even a simple balanced or interesting snack.
Taking a few minutes to cook up a few common meal basics—not quite meals, but not just raw ingredients—can make feeding yourself much easier (and tastier) as the week goes on. Professional chefs rely on this concept for personal and restaurant use. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, the chief culinary consultant of Serious Eats, writes about culinary blocks, or prepared condiments or dish bases that a) taste good, and b) last a long time in your fridge. He points out that most restaurants devote as much as half their refrigerator space to these demi-prepared dishes, so that when it comes time to get food to the table—fast!—the food prep staff just need a spoonful of this and a dash of that, and a meal is magically ready in moments.
Your culinary blocks will vary depending on what you like and what you have already on hand. Pro tip: start to build your culinary blocks by simply googling “what to cook with a lot of [whatever you have]”; this necessity-driven-invention can lead you to a lot of fun and delicious places. After that, think about what you like to eat, or what you’d like to eat more of. Some good examples of culinary blocks that lend themselves well to healthy, interesting meals later on include roasted chickpeas, sautéed peppers and onions, marinated veggies, boiled potatoes, finely-chopped greens, and some herbed rice. (Now that I think of it, just throw all of that together and you’ve got a great salad—or use a combo as a side for a protein, the base for a curry, or whatever suits your fancy.)
Refrigerator resetting as a rewarding regular routine
Here’s the real challenge, now that you’ve gotten through this Herculean task at least once: keep it going.
If you’re anything like me, you’re master of the Super Thorough Reset . . . that happens once a year. This isn’t new advice, but if you take care of your fridge more often, it won’t ever become a scary specter that you need to invest lots of time and effort into cleaning. My advice? Pick a night that you simultaneously have a few extra free minutes and you need a dose of peacefulness injected into your routine. Personally, a quick fridge reset has become my way to combat the Sunday Scaries, so I set aside twenty minutes or so of my Sunday evening after dinner to set it up.
Doing this makes me feel more in control of at least one tiny part of my universe as I head into Monday Mania. Try it out, lean into it if you can, and give yourself the time to experiment with a new culinary block or two. You’ll be happier, you’ll have the opportunity to eat more varied food (if you want), and your fridge won’t be a source of stress (not even the way back, where you can’t really reach). It’s basically the gift that keeps on giving.
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