F.or most of us, when the fridge comes to mind, it’s usually because we are working out what snack we’d like to eat. Generally, it is not the center of big issues like food safety, money or food waste.

But perhaps it should be. “The most-wasted foods in Australia are vegetables, bread, fruit, bagged salad, milk and leftovers,” says Annika Stott, a sustainability strategist at OzHarvest. Meaning the household fridge has a significant role to play in fighting food waste – or in making it worse.

“The majority of food waste comes from our homes,” says Stott, “over 2.5m tonnes each year. And sadly 70% of this is perfectly edible food. “

Disorganized fridges have an impact on wastage for a variety of reasons, from incorrect storage, to overpacking to simply forgetting what you’ve already bought, she explains.

Fridges can also be a hot spot for food poisoning, says Lydia Buchtmann, the communication director of the Food Safety Information Council.

“There are an estimated 4.1m cases of food poisoning in Australia each year. Using your fridge correctly is a key way of reducing your risk. “

An organized fridge is also good for the household budget, says Sarah Cottman, who chairs the Institute of Professional Organisers International, since you are less likely to accidentally double up or overpurchase. Fortunately, arranging a fridge to take care of the big things also makes it easier to grab that snack you were thinking about.

1. Perform an audit

Taming a fridge begins by figuring out its contents, says Stott. Knowing what food you have in stock means you can “buy only what you need” and “cook up what you’ve got before buying more”.

If your fridge is particularly crowded, Cottman suggests taking everything out. “One by one, pick up each item and check the expiry. Items that are still good to be consumed can be wiped over and put next to the sink, ready to go back in, ”she says.

This is particularly important for food safety. “Any packaged food must be used or frozen by its use-by date,” says Buchtmann.

It is also worth checking packaging for storage instructions, Cottman suggests. Some things that could be stored in the pantry may have made their way into the fridge, so evicting them will free up space.

2. Freeze what you won’t use

“The freezer is a great way to hit the pause button,” says Stott. “There’s not much that can’t be frozen – you just have to remember to cook and eat from the freezer.”

This is even true of one of the most-wasted fridge items: milk. Stott says that milk near its use-by date can be put in the freezer until you need it. “To defrost, place it in the fridge and give [it] a little shake. “

3. Develop and the system

Putting the right items in the right place is important for food safety, says Buchtmann, since the temperature inside a fridge varies. “The fridge door is warmer than other areas of the fridge, so keep that for less-risky items like drinks and jams and pickles.”

Low risk items like drinks and condiments are best kept in the fridge door, which tends to be the warmest part of the fridge. Photograph: Rustycanuck / Alamy

You also need to quarantine high risk items, since “cross contamination is a major source of food poisoning”. This means storing “raw meat and chicken where it cannot drip onto… foods that won’t be cooked, such as salads and desserts,” she says.

Once safety concerns are addressed, Cottman suggests developing a storage system that makes intuitive sense for your household, like keeping specific cuisine ingredients together or keeping similar items together. “Perhaps a shelf for dairy, cheeses, cream and sour cream, yoghurt, dips etc.”

Knowing where everything goes makes it faster to take stock of what you’ve got, and less likely that items will get lost and expire.

4. Have a use-it-up shelf

“Our research showed that creating a use-it-up shelf is the best way to reduce food waste at home,” says Stott.

Based on this insight, OzHarvest created Use It Up tape which works as a screamingly visual cue on what to eat first. The tape is free for all Australian households, delivered for the price of postage.

“Simply mark a ‘Use It Up’ shelf in your fridge, freezer or pantry, or stick it on containers or food that needs using up,” Stott says.

“Once you see what you already have in the fridge, you’re more likely to use it up.”

A fridge with a designated Use It Up shelf, marked by tape OzHarvest is making available free of charge in Australia.
OzHarvest’s Use It Up tape. Photograph: OzHarvest

5. Adjust temperature and humidity

The optimal fridge temperature is at or below 5C, Buchtmann says. But depending on the temperature outside and what, or how much, you keep in the fridge, you may need to set the internal temperature lower to keep things consistently cool.

For example, if you place leftovers that are still warm in the fridge without turning the temperature down, this can raise the overall temperature in the fridge, possibly resulting in the growth of harmful bacteria.

If your fridge does not have an inbuilt thermometer – or you don’t trust what the thermometer is telling you – you can buy one separately. Moving a thermometer around the fridge will also show you the location of any hot or cold spots, so you can avoid accidentally freezing your cucumbers or spoiling your milk.

“Fresh vegetables should be stored in the crisper to keep their quality,” says Buchtmann. But if your fridge has multiple fruit and vegetable crispers, it’s worth setting them at different humidity levels. Things that wilt, like leafy greens, are best kept at higher humidity, while most fruits keep better at low humidity.

A fridge thermometer is front of a fridge
Fridge thermometers are widely available, and make it easy to arrange around hot and cold spots. Photograph: Arterra Picture Library / Alamy

6. Plan ahead

Stott and Cottman both advocate meal planning before you shop as a way to save money and cut down on waste.

To avoid ingredients destined for dinner being inadvertently eaten, Cottman proposes a designated cooking shelf where you “keep… planned meal ingredients in a container or strong brown paper bag, and write the day of the week on the outside”.

“This could also be the same shelf [used] for leftovers, ”she says.

7. Stick with the system when you unpack

When you bring a grocery shop home, make sure all purchases are stored to last. It is important not to wash fruit or vegetables until you are ready to eat them, as washing may encourage mold, says Buchtmann.

Berries are best stored in their original container, advises Stott, as are sliced ​​meats, which should also be sealed tightly to stay fresh.

Finally, Buchtmann suggests using your laziest impulses to your advantage. “When you unpack your groceries, put the newer items at the back of the fridge, so the older food is used first and not wasted.”

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