The key to a streamlined refrigerator is to ensure easy access to foods when they're at their peak of flavor and freshness, says Jackie Newgent, R.D., national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Check the manufacturer's guidelines to find your fridge's coldest area (below 40° f). Then use this shelf-by-shelf guide to save time and space. You'll not only have healthier food handy, but your leftovers may also last longer.
On the coldest shelf: Store items likely to spoil quickly, such as dairy, eggs, meats, and fish.
How long they'll last: Milk keeps for five days after opening and eggs about three weeks, unless the use-by date is earlier. Eat fresh fish the day of purchase, meat within two days. When you bring either home, keep it in the original packaging, and place it in a deep bowl to catch drips.
On the middle shelf: Set aside this area for foods that require quick reheating, such as leftovers, because it's accessible to all family members. This is also a good spot for nonleafy veggies and fresh fruit; they suffer damage if stored too long at the fridge's coldest temperatures.
How long they'll last: Hard-boiled eggs will keep for seven days; most leftovers are safe for only three. If you're not sure, toss it out, Newgent says.
In the vegetable crisper: The high humidity in this bottom drawer preserves the water content of thick-skinned veggies, such as leafy greens, peppers, and broccoli, thereby reducing wilting.
How long they'll last: One week
In the second drawer: Often called the meat and cheese drawer, deli meats, bacon, and hard cheeses go here.
How long they'll last: Unopened meats will keep until the manufacturer's use-by date, but fresh-cut, tightly sealed deli meats stay good for just three to five days. Tightly wrapped hard cheeses can keep up to three weeks.
On the door: This is the place for condiments, pickles, and acidic foods, which resist bacterial growth. Never keep highly perishable foods here; warmer air hits them when the door opens.
How long they'll last: Most condiments keep for about two months.
In the freezer, wrap foods in two layers of plastic to avoid air exposure, which causes freezer burn. Wrapped well, cooked meats last one to two months; uncooked up to one year; butter and cheese six to nine months; and vegetables eight to 10 months.
Here's what the dates stamped on food products mean.
Pack Date: When a product was packaged. It's not necessarily an indicator of freshness.
Sell-by Date: The last day a retailer can display the product for sale; the food should remain safe to eat for as many as 10 days afterward if refrigerated properly.
Use-by Date: A food is safe to eat until this date. However, mishandling at home or the store, which could cause damage, is not considered.
Best-if-used-by Date: This is the most reliable one to follow, because it takes possible mishandling into account.