I'm always surprised by how much money I can spend at the market. While there are lots of things you can do to save money on food — limit your grocery runs to once a week, eat out of the freezer and pantry instead of ordering out, take lunch to work, shop with a grocery list — for me it all starts with having an organized fridge. Not to mention a clean one.
Having an organized fridge is more than just a matter of things looking neat and pretty. It also helps me to know what I have, what I need and what I use. And it helps me keep track of the things that I do purchase. Plus when things are organized, it's not just an incentive to cook, it helps make cooking a lot easier. Here's how to make your fridge work for you.
Check the outside: A good wipe down of the outside makes an old fridge look nice and keeps a new one looking that way longer. It's amazing how sticky the dust in a kitchen gets. While you're at it, pull out the fridge and vacuum the compressor coils. Dirty compressor coils can cause a fridge to work extra hard to keep things cold, which will lead to them eventually burning out.
Do the dollar test: Use a dollar to check your fridge's seal. If it falls out when the fridge is closed, it's time to have the seal replaced. To keep a new seal in good condition, wipe it down occassionally using warm soapy water and a sponge, and then dry it. Lubricate it with Vaseline or weather stripping lubricant once a year.
Wipe down the inside: I like Mrs. Meyer's all-purpose cleaner in basil scent. It smells clean without clashing with the smell of fresh food.
Check your condiments: Condiments do not keep forever. If you've had a condiment in the fridge for over a year, chances are it's time to toss it.
Then organize them: Yes, I'm that person, but it does make things a lot easier to find. When I'm in the middle of cooking and need the sesame oil, the difference between having it at my fingertips and searching for it may mean the difference between a great meal and a burnt one. Organize them by how you use them. For me that means grouping the usual suspects together (ketchup, mayo, mustard), the Asian condiments (wasabi, sesame seed oil, tamarind paste) in a pack, and the jams and jellies in one section of the on-door shelves.
If your fridge has drawers, designate them: fruit in one, vegetables in another, cold cuts and cheeses in a third.
Group dairy together. I put butter and eggs together (because that's how they usually get used in my house) on a shelf and use the refrigerator's butter holder to store vitamins and medications.
Rearrange the shelves: Arrange them to suit how you like to keep things, whether that's moving a shelf up to make room for tall beverage containers on the bottom or moving a shelf down to make room for beverage containers on the top.
Keep one shelf relatively clear for cooked and prepared foods: Whether it's a roast that I've made for tomorrow night's dinner or sandwiches packed for tomorrow's lunch, I like to group them all on the same shelf. If I need to chill a cake, I know that there's room for it that won't necessitate me having to move everything around to accommodate it.
Group leftovers the same way and store them in clear glass or plastic containers: This way you can see what you have and you're not scrounging around for the leftover carrots from last night's dinner to throw into tonight's stew.
Not everything needs to go in the fridge: After spending time in Europe, where the refrigerators are bar sized, I discovered that a lot of foods don't need to be refrigerated. In fact, a lot of foods should never be refrigerated. Potatoes and onions shouldn't (hang them in a wire basket or put them in a basket in your pantry), neither should tomatoes (they'll develop their full flavor in a sunny kitchen window) and, because apples give off a gas that makes other things ripen, you may want to keep them out of the fridge as well (if you need to harness those gases, stick your unripe fruit or vegetable in a paper bag with an apple and watch it work its magic). If you use up eggs relatively quickly and buy them pretty fresh (especially if you purchase them from the farmer's market), they can stay on the counter piled in a pretty bowl. Herbs too can be left unrefrigerated; treat them like flowers — put them in a vase with a little bit of water — and let them scent your kitchen. Depending on how fast you use them, nut butters and Nutella are also fine if left unrefrigerated for a week or two. And, unless it's as hot as I've heard it is in NY this week, many good cheeses are fine if left out for a few days (wrap them carefully in waxed or parchment paper and put them in a glass or plastic container to keep them from bugs and rodents). Many people also keep butter out (I compromise by keeping my butter in a butter keeper).
Clean out your fridge once a week, just before you do your weekly shopping: You'll know what you need and you won't buy a nice fat bunch of celery only to come home and find you already have a perfectly good one that you didn't use from last week. And it'll head off any potential science projects.
(Image: Abigail Stone)