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Posted on Sep 29, 2008 in Organize, Tips | 31 comments

Kitchen Reorganization Series: Refrigerator

Kitchen Reorganization Series: Refrigerator


Terror is an excellent motivator. For Apartment Therapy’s The Kitchn blog’s photo tour of my bento kitchen, I panicked and did a sweeping overhaul of my cabinets, refrigerator and pantry before they came. In part one of my Kitchen Reorganization Series, I showed how I reorganized my scary spice pantry; part two examined the makeover of my messy pantry. Here’s part three: my terrible refrigerator and freezer. (UPDATE: The series concludes with the reorganization of the remaining cabinets and garbage containers for the prep area.)

Freezer door

I don’t have “Before” photos this time around because the refrigerator was the absolute worst, messiest place in the whole kitchen and I couldn’t bear taking even one photo of the inside before cleaning for the cameras. Sorry! Just imagine stuff crammed in everywhere willy nilly, overpacked and unorganized to the naked eye. I’ve got pretty good recall so I mostly knew where everything was, but somehow my poor husband wasn’t able to read my mind to find things… The photo shoot was a good opportunity to get things in order using ideas from my Japanese-language kitchen organization books. Do you have any great tips for organizing your refrigerator or freezer? Let us know in comments! (Read on for details of the refrigerator and freezer reorganization, with feedback on what’s been working for me over the last few months and what hasn’t.)

Whiteboard for freezer inventoryFreezer Door (outside): Starting on the outside of the fridge, on the left I have a small hanging whiteboard and magnetic whiteboard marker that are theoretically for tracking freezer inventory as I use and replace things. (Click on any photo for a larger view.)


  • This works when I maintain it, but I go through phases of keeping it up to date and plain ignoring it. Unfortunately it’s only as good as the weakest link: me. Any food inventory system will help reduce food costs as it reduces waste and double-shopping, so I should be better about this.
  • I initially got the little hanging board from Daiso discount store as it had a magnetic strip on the back. I figured I’d have lots of flexibility with where to put it, but unfortunately the magnetic strip is too weak to keep it up anywhere (let alone write on it!). There was a cord on the back, though, so I was able to put it up with a magnetic hook that sticks on top of the freezer door.

The magnetic notepaper pads in the middle were a dollar from Target, and help me make grocery lists as the week goes by. A magnetic pen holder usually keeps pens handy for jotting down quick notes, and I have two up so that I can keep a running Costco list and a regular market list. If I had unlimited space on the fridge I’d have about five of these up (one for each of my regular markets), but it’s easy enough to glance over the longer list before I go out and plan out a trip to whichever market seems the most urgent. I need to rearrange the stuff on the front of the fridge so that the maroon magnetic paper holders (Daiso) along the top are actually more accessible; that way I’d be able to have multiple paper lists running at once.

Verdict: I use these ALL the time. Big thumbs up as I can actually stay on top of the upkeep.

Freezer door (magnetic whiteboard sheet)

Here’s another cool whiteboard planner that I would use all the time if I were a better person. It’s a flexible magnetic whiteboard sheet that I picked up reasonably from Daiso, with the days of the week on it. I’ve got a similar sheet downstairs on the lid of the chest freezer to track inventory, but it came totally blank without days or columns. Sometimes I use the weekday sheet to roughly sketch out what sort of leftovers are in the fridge that need using up, and ideas for the next day’s bento. (See the Laptop Lunch planning worksheet for something similar.)


  • Like any inventory system, it’s only as good as the data — sometimes I use it, other times not, which kind of defeats the purpose (yeah, I’m lazy). When I do use it to track our leftovers and plan bento lunches, it’s excellent for knowing what needs using up quickly, without wasting energy by opening the refrigerator door and just standing in front of it.
  • I’m finding that the flexible magnetic sheets are harder to erase with regular whiteboard erasers than the hard ones. Either use dry erase board cleaner (expensive) or a regular old wet wipe (cheap) to clean marker residue from the sheets. Extra tip for parents: rubbing alcohol removes Sharpie marker scrawls from the refrigerator door. Ask me how I had to figure that one out…

Refrigerator magnets

A little bit of educational whimsy — some paper-thin butchery magnets from Alton Brown’s book I’m Just Here for the Food. There used to be an egg magnet that went with the chicken, but Bug did something with it (d’oh!). I added the chicken’s editorial comment from an old set of Dilbert magnets.

Verdict: Thumbs up! I never could keep cuts of meat straight in my head; it’s convenient to have reference material front and center as playful magnets on the freezer.

Refrigerator door Organized mustard tubes on fridge door

Refrigerator Door: This area is pretty standard, with the exception of a neat little condiment holder (from Daiso or Ichiban Kan discount stores) that clips onto the side of the milk/juice area. It’s the perfect size for little tubes of wasabi, ground ginger, or karashi spicy mustard, or even pre-filled sauce containers. My Japanese freezing books also show photos of people using regular old binder clips on the door to hold these little tubes, making me think I could try that out for tubes of tomato paste. Think about what you use most often and need to have easy access to, then experiment with different ways of organizing.


Plastic refrigerator organizing tray

Main refrigerator: Here’s the main refrigerator area, packed to the gills with STUFF. You can see my organizational problem: I’m a total packrat with staples for many different cuisines. Life would be easier if I focused on one or two cuisines instead of bopping around the map, but there you go. I used a combination of long refrigerator trays (shown at right, available for US$1 to $1.50 at Ichiban Kan and Daiso), organizing baskets, and a common soda can organizer. I get a lot of things from Ichiban Kan; check out their online store for cheap kitchen organizing products, plastic baskets, storage boxes, etc. (Disclaimer: I have no commercial affiliations with Ichiban Kan or Daiso.)

The top shelf (left to right) holds a long tray of salad dressings, orange baskets of condiments and jarred staples, and another narrow tray of pasta sauces. My organizing books also show a thrifty alternative of using the bottom of washed milk cartons to store small items in the fridge.

Verdict: So-so. I found that there wasn’t enough space or flexibility on the top shelf to accommodate the regular shopping or leftovers we generate. I’ve since revamped the top shelf, clearing out some of the baskets and trays to create more open space.

Meat compartment Toast spread tray

On the second shelf, I lined the meat compartment with absorbent refrigerator paper to catch any drippings from defrosting meat, reducing chances of contamination and making cleanup easier. (A layer of paper towels is a cheap alternative.) To the right of the meat compartment is a tray of toast spreads (jams, natural peanut butter, etc.) that I can quickly pull out at breakfast and put on the table. On the far right is a narrow tray with a variety of Thai curry pastes, a regular weeknight meal in our house (see my Thai curry master recipe).

Verdict: Thumbs up! Haven’t had any leakage issues in the meat compartment yet, but it’s probably just a matter of time. The toast spread tray is probably my favorite part of the refrigerator reorganization: no more rooting around with the fridge door open, looking for all of the different jams, jellies and toast spreads at breakfast time. Speed up!

Yogurt tray Bento basket

Box of refrigerated sauce containers Left to right, the bottom shelf holds a can organizer for sodas (providing a nice shelf for an egg carton), a wider/taller refrigerator tray with yogurt, another wide tray with salsas, and the bento basket filled with handy items for packed lunches (wrapped cheeses, quail eggs, inarizushi wrappers, dumpling wrappers, and a container of pre-filled sauce containers for speed). So when I open the refrigerator in the morning and wonder blankly what to pack, I’ve got a handy fall-back basket full of options.

I keep my little pre-filled sauce containers with ketchup and other perishable sauces in a little lidded container in the bento basket for easy access. These are the same little containers that my friend Virginia swears by for her forgetful kids, to help them remember to bring back everything from school. For additional ideas, see my longer post on getting back lunch gear.

Verdict: Not bad. The baskets in the front pull out pretty easily to reveal a line of seldom-used jars in the very back. Much better than before, when I’d just to root around clumsily and usually forget about anything that wasn’t right in front.

Produce organizers

The vegetable crisper on the left holds hard fruits and vegetables in a cool produce organizer I picked up from Daiso. The middle dividers are adjustable and removable, and there’s a little horizontal separator that balances inside for added flexibility.

Freezer door

Freezer Door: Here’s the freezer door with small containers of frozen rice, ice packs, spices, and cooking odds and ends like tomato paste or lime juice (frozen in ice cube trays).  In general, the freezer door should hold things that can stand up to repeated temperature fluctuations due to opening the door. Ice packs and spices are fine, but I should probably move the frozen rice deeper inside the main freezer.


Main Freezer: Even though I have a big chest freezer downstairs to store my cheap bulk purchases, the upstairs freezer was still jam-packed with food and ice packs that tended to fall out when my husband rummaged around. When one landed on Bug I knew it was time to get things in hand (even prior to the Apartment Therapy photo shoot).

I moved excess food downstairs to the chest freezer, and used a combination of baskets, long trays, and bookends to put the upstairs freezer in some semblance of order. It’s not perfect, but it’s okay. The wide Flexi-Glide tray on the very bottom pulls all the way out, so no need to use separate baskets on the bottom shelf as long as things aren’t piled so high that they catch when the tray is pulled out. It’s not as neat as the super-organized freezers I see in my Japanese freezing books or anything, but it gets the job done. I got the expandable bookend-style freezer organizer from Daiso.

Freezer basket with bento food Frozen corn & green onions in plastic water bottles

The regular shelves have baskets and trays so that I can pull things out from the back and sort through them on the counter with the freezer door closed — saves time and electricity. The big basket on the middle right is full of frozen bento staples (see my earlier post on bento baskets for the freezer), and the other trays are full of homemade stock, meats/fish/sausages, sliced cheese and plastic bottles with chopped green onions and corn.

Verdict: So-so. I’ve since swapped out the small-mouth plastic bottles for wide-mouth bottles to make it easier to shake out the green onions and corn. After watching a recent episode of Alton Brown’s Good Eats on freezing, I’m now a little more lukewarm on using the plastic bottles for freezing, as exposure to air encourages freezer burn. I may go back to freezer bags or little freezer containers lined with paper towels to reduce the air.



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  1. Everything looks great. I wish my frig looked like that. I LOVE the front of your frig with your “what’s in me magnets.” They are so cute!

  2. Soo…. I definitely need to clean up my fridge then? XD Great ideas though!

  3. WOW!!! I’m so inspired!! My husband and I are empty nesters now so I’m working on getting HIM to be a little more independent instead of just opening the refrigerator and saying “Babe-where is the….” (You know the drill kind of like “Honey where are my socks?”). This definately calls for a shopping trip to Ichibankan and Daiso!! Thanks for the inspiration and tips!!

  4. Love the magnets!
    And I love the tips!
    Why haven’t I thought of a bento-basket in my fridge? I have that for my pantry, so why not the fridge? =’)
    Same goes for the breakfast-stuff. Silly me.

    And you keep inspiring me to reorganise my stuff! So thanks for that!

  5. I live alone and after some misses with ending in food crawling being the sign that the fridge needed to be cleaned as my foremost guide I have sense worked up a system. The best solution for me was to think about what where and when. What was I eating and how often. I could move all that which is just a casual use out of the way. Where: I found I refrigerate things you don’t need to refrigerate.
    When: In a household, I presume there’s a turnaround of food in a greater extense than there is in a small household. It saves me money to keep an eye and dairy products for one, and now I bought some pears the other day for a wonderful compote. Only energy dried up and replaced with fatigue. Energy had returned and if i replace 1 pear I can salvage the other 5. For me it has not only been about getting organised, although that helps, but also to have space for an overlook so that you toss as little as possible.

  6. Biggie, I love your organizational posts! I wanted to share a method I use to keep ‘stock’ in the fridge/kitchen.

    I use a program called “Shopping List”, which for all it’s 1998 styling, is very useful. It allows you to make a master list of groceries, by category, which you can print and stick on the fridge. You can then go through that master list and make a shopping list, which again, you can print by category.

    One of the nice things about using this program is that it allows you to put in a price for each item, so when you print your shopping list, you have a general idea how much it should cost you. It also allows you to fully customize the categories and items - and the category system makes it easier to find and remember things when you’re in the store.

    What I -don’t- like is the fact that you do have to go through and add each individual item/category into the program (even if you use their default list, it needs to be customized)- something that’s tedious at first, but does become easier as you shape the master list for your needs.

    Anyways…I thought I’d share. Sorry about the long comment! ^_^

    The link to find the program (which is freeware) is here:

  7. biggie!!!

    you are teh bomb!
    (as the kids say)

    you have hit on my problem. You said.. If I could cook from just one cuisine, maybe my fridge would look more … uh… ‘acceptable.’ EXACTLY.

    Some of us like to cook around the world, and we wind up with condiments from all over. And that makes our fridges .. uh?… ugly?

    ha!! We live better and eat better!! In your face!!!

    Go Biggie!!!

  8. Great post.
    How do you organize your chets freezer.
    i recently bought a mini one for my new bento hobby and things just disappear into the depths.

  9. Hi, Biggie,

    Wow, great organization! I don’t know whether to be ashamed or inspired-a little of both, I guess!

    Have you looked into gmail? They have a very cool calendar feature that is downright addictive, especially to those of us obsessive types, and you might enjoy printing it out and attaching it to the front of your fridge every week! (Best of all, gmail is free!)

  10. Mary, I do something similar on Word, but I made it so that the products are listed in the order that I find them when I’m at the grocery store.

    I print out the master list and circle what I need to replace.

  11. Great ideas! Everytime you post your make-over I go and see what I can do to shape things up (although, I think I am finally as good as it is going to get!)

    I see you tried with the wipe off board to make an inventory list. Just want to say that I am totally a never-stick-to-anything kinda girl. But, I literally write down everything when I bring it home. For ex: I have leftovers from a restaurant. Put it in the fridge, close the fridge, write it on the list. When I go food shopping, I literally take my receipt and add the items (I do mine on the computer and write on it until it is a complete mess and then print a new one.)

    Of course, I don’t have a Bug, so, it’s a bit easier for me. But if you write it right away, no need to play catch up. Just a helpful tip maybe :D

  12. I love your site for all the bento tips, and now I love it all the more now that I know you are a Alton Brown fan. Ever think of yourself as the AB of bento?

    Things get used up pretty fast in my fridge, so there generally isn’t much clutter to start with. If I buy a new sauce or food I don’t like, I find a friend to pass it on to, or just throw it away(if it wasn’t too expensive). It’s led to some interesting foodswaps (a box of mac’n'cheese bites for a bottle of Geikkeikan springs to mind).

  13. Doesn’t it feel wonderful to look in an organized fridge? I did mine a few months ago and I’m proud to say it still looks great.

    The key is containerizing things. I bought inexpensive clear plastic shoe boxes at the dollar store. I can fit 3 per shelf. I gave them generalized topics like “dairy”, “meats”, “cheeses”, “condiments” etc.

    On the bottom shelf I put a wire divider because it’s the tallest shelf and have a container marked “leftovers” on the bottom of the wire divider and keep odd shaped things that fit into no catagory on the top.

  14. I keep an updated running list of what’s in my freezer upstairs and in the long-term storage freezer downstairs. I make a weekly menu (breakfast, lunch and dinners) based on those lists, supplementing with weekly grocery shopping. I pre-cook whenever possible on the weekends!

    And, the upstairs freezer (attached to the fridge) has a shallow pull-out tray that’s the width of the freezer. That’s my bento tray! Just bento stuff in there.

    To make bento I look at the menu, which may just say “rice, egg, veg” and then I look at my smaller freezer list, which is more specific about what I have on hand (“edamame, peas, corn disks”). I don’t have to root around b/se these are on the Bento shelf. This morning I made Muffin’s bento in six minutes, and it even had a face!

  15. @1 from Katie: Thanks, Katie! I like the mouthy chicken magnet too — what does he get out of the whole being eaten thing?

  16. That dry erase board- in a craft store or craft section of general goods store, you can find magnetic dots and strips or sometimes whole rolls of magnetic striping that already have adhesive backing. I’ve had to redo our boards, and they seem to hold up pretty good.

  17. @3 from Taina: Gee, that sounds SO familiar!!! I’ve noticed that my husband is more self-sufficient in the kitchen now that things have an generally identifiable location they can be found in. I still get the occasional question, but it’s easier to tell him, “It’s in X basket in the Y cabinet” without having to get up and find everything for him. I still have a couple of scary locations in my kitchen, though — baking pans & kitchen accessories are in a big scary jumble. Someday I’ll get to those too, but I’m fine for the moment.

  18. @4 from Cy-V: This past weekend some of our friends moved into a new place, and I helped set up the kitchen. Made them a “breakfast shelf” in the pantry with the same principles — it’s a pretty efficient way of organizing things according to how/when you use them. Good luck!

  19. @5 from Jessika: Excellent points as usual, Jessika! What’s an example of something you refrigerated that doesn’t need refrigeration? Keeping some things out of the fridge would be helpful as long as there’s no degradation in food quality or safety. Inventory systems do help reduce waste (& $) through food spoilage — if I do nothing else I should probably make a mid-year resolution to stay on top of that.

  20. @6 from Mary: Thanks for the tip on the Shopping List software, Mary! I’ve tried software solutions in the past and found that I don’t stick with them, but it sounds like an excellent option for someone with more dedication!

  21. @7 from kay: Glad someone else has my problem of a kitchen crowded with staples from many different cuisines. :-) As you say, it’s a bit of a headache but it pays off for me personally with the ability to walk into the kitchen and make pretty much any cuisine I feel like at that precise moment. If I actually planned meals ahead regularly this wouldn’t be as key, but I know my own habits.

  22. @8 from Elaine: Uh, do we have to talk about my chest freezer? There’s a reason you haven’t seen any photos of mine yet… Seriously, I started using big deep baskets (with holes) that stack on top of each other and I can lift out to access the bottom layer more easily. But it’s still not nicely organized and is a bit scary — why the magnetic dry erase sheet for inventory on the lid is really key for keeping track of contents. Otherwise I forget what’s in there and double-buy. I wish I’d bought a big upright freezer now, but it’s too late…

  23. @11 from princess_design: Excellent idea to write down new inventory from the receipt! I’ll have to give that a try — it might be just the thing I need to stick with it!

  24. @12 from Bridget: I’m a HUGE Alton Brown fan! Never miss an episode (thanks, Tivo!). I could only dream of being the AB of bento… Interesting approach to actively throw away or trade extra food you don’t like.

  25. @13 from Lauren: Tell me more about the wire divider — is it like a shelf organizer that stands up on its own? Do you have a photo or a link you could share? I’m having trouble envisioning it…

  26. @14 from snappiness: Wow, you are super-organized, woman! Glad to hear it’s paying off for you with super-speedy packing and cute lunches for your daughter. :-)

  27. @15 from Yvo: Well, you could always order the fridge trays & organizers from Ichiban Kan’s online store. Which reminds me that I should put a link to their kitchen organization stuff up in the post. (Off to do that now — thanks for the thought!)

  28. @18 from quirk: Why didn’t I think of that?! Thanks for the tip on adding additional stick-on magnets to the little dry erase board — sounds like just the thing I need.

  29. @35 from Gabrielle (GiGi): I deleted your first comment, so no more duplicate. Ta dah! Good meeting you tonight at school; look forward to comparing horror stories about our scary kitchens. ;-) Be sure to check out my SF Bay Area Shopping Guide for Bento Gear for the cheapest/best stores.

  30. My kitchen organizing tip is writing lists directly on the fridge with dry-erase markers - although I use a pad for shopping lists, so I can take the list with me. Yours looks like it would work, too. I use magnetic markers that stick to the fridge so they are always ready. The nice thing about this system is that your lists can grow to any size needed, and the fridge decor is less cluttered. It’s also good for leaving notes for family members.

  31. @37 from Susan: It hadn’t occurred to me to write directly on the fridge with dry-erase markers — I’ll give that a spin (with some wet wipes in hand in case there’s a problem). Thanks for the tip!


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