When It Comes to Your Fridge, Cleanliness is Next to Healthiness

November 15, 2017 Dahlia Marin, RDN


It may seem like a daunting chore, but cleaning your refrigerator is worth the effort.

When's the last time you gave your refrigerator a good cleaning? If there's a glob of dried pasta sauce on the shelf and a container of leftovers so old it's waving hello at you, then it's safe to say it's been too long! "Cleaning the fridge may be a chore, but it's a necessary one for food safety and your health--and it's not as big of a job as it may seem," says Dahlia Marin, RDN, the registered dietitian nutritionist at the new Mission Hospital Wellness Corner - Sendero Marketplace. Here's what you need to know to keep your fridge, and your food, in pristine condition.

Why you need to clean your refrigerator

We may think, “I just cleaned the fridge out not too long ago” without realizing that it has actually been nine months, and several families of bacterial are now colonizing in your vegetable crisper. "Your refrigerator is meant to keep food fresh, and also prevent bacteria from growing too quickly in food," Marin says. "But if the refrigerator isn't cleaned out regularly, whether you leave spoiled food in it or don't clean it properly, there is the possibility of cross-contamination. For instance, if you have a package of raw chicken that leaks onto the refrigerator shelf, the bacteria from that chicken juice can spoil other food it comes into contact with on the shelf. Also, there are some bacteria, such as listeria, that can grow quickly in cold temperatures, so it's important to clean your refrigerator regularly."

How to clean your refrigerator

You may think cleaning your refrigerator is a heavy-duty job, but it can be more manageable with regular upkeep. Here are some of our easy-peasy clean-up tips:

Clean up spills right when they happen. Don't let them dry and get crusty over time, because they'll be much harder to remove or to see to clean properly. Simple soap and water works; white vinegar is also a good non-toxic, all-purpose cleaner and can be mixed one part vinegar to three parts water. Be mindful not to clean in the refrigerator with harsh chemicals, which can make their way into your sensitive gut once they have come in contact with your food. A few of Marin’s favorite natural cleaners are Dr. Bronner’s Organic Castile Soap and Eat Cleaner.

Give the fridge a once-over every week. "Inside the refrigerator, take a look at the food and toss anything that is spoiled or moldy, or freeze things that are still good but you can't eat right away." Marin says. "On the outside of the refrigerator, wipe the surfaces down with a vinegar-and-water mixture or a natural multipurpose cleaner, especially the handles, which can be a hotbed of germs. A great time to do this is right before you go to the supermarket, so you have a clean refrigerator ready for your new groceries and empty Tupperware to store new dishes you prep."

Set aside a day a few times each year for a deeper clean. This shouldn't be too difficult if you are regularly cleaning your refrigerator. Once the power to the fridge is turned off and it's emptied of any food, you can start scrubbing out the inside walls and compartments, and removing the shelves for washing and drying. Making a paste of baking soda and water will not only clean the refrigerator, but the baking soda will help get rid of any odors. This would also be a good time to make sure the seals on the refrigerator doors are in good condition so it maintains the proper temperature, and replace the water filter if necessary. Finally, clean the condenser coils, either underneath or on the back of the unit, according to the manufacturer's instructions.

How to store food to keep the refrigerator clean

Wipe down food jars and containers before they go in the refrigerator. You never know how many hands handled that jar from factory to grocery store prior to it entering your home. Take a second to rinse or wipe it off prior to using it or putting it in your food’s home! No-sugar-added tomato sauce, natural peanut butter, mustard and healthy salad dressings--these types of food (and their less-healthy counterparts) can drip off the lid or jar edge, which can cause a mess. Ensuring they are tightly closed prior to them returning will also reduce spillage and accidents.

Put meat and poultry in a safe place. "Raw meats should be placed on the bottom shelf so they don't accidentally drip on other food in the refrigerator," Marin says. "Taking the grass-fed and organic poultry or meat out of its supermarket packaging and putting it in a leak-proof container can add another layer of protection from cross-contamination."

Put a lid on leftovers. You can guard against spills and rapid spoilage by using glass containers with lids that can be tightly sealed. “I try to avoid consuming leftovers which have had a used utensil in them in the previous 48-72 hours, as the bacteria from your mouth rapidly grows, causing the leftovers to spoil faster. Leaving utensils in leftovers also makes them more likely to leave behind a mess,” Marin advises.

Give food some breathing room. Don't pile food items on top of each other in the fridge. The less cold air that can reach the food, the more likely it is to spoil quickly, especially foods high in protein, such as meats, beans, and grains. "Spoiled food can be a cause of food poisoning with an onset of anywhere from two to 24 hours after consuming the rotten food, which can trigger vomiting, fever and stomach pain, among other symptoms," Marin says. "If you experience those severe symptoms or others such as dehydration or diarrhea, contact your doctor."

Know which foods need to be refrigerated and which don’t. Fresh meat and poultry must be kept refrigerated at 40 degrees F or below, but keeping certain fruits on the countertop will save space and avoid quick spoilage. Avocados, bananas, cantaloupes, kiwis, mangoes, nectarines, pears, plums, and tomatoes produce a gas called ethylene as they ripen, causing them to become mealy quickly when refrigerated and making them more likely to blister and leak.

Prolong shelf-life and reduce spoilage by removing moisture and changing storage bags. Many produce items will begin spoiling quicker when damp and suffocated. Removing them from non-breathable plastic bags (which can be avoided all together by taking reusable mesh bags to the grocery store), drying them with a paper towel, and storing them in mesh bags can lead to fewer spills and longer safe use.

Practicing these food safety tips may seem daunting, but it’s no more of a drag than missing work, social functions, or school due to a foodborne illness caused by an unkempt refrigerator. Make them a regular part of your routine and your body will thank you! 

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.



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