By now you've probably developed a routine (be it weekly or monthly) that revolves around cleaning your oven, stove, and other frequently used kitchen appliances, but when was the last time you bothered to clean out your refrigerator (and freezer) and give it a good scrub?
Sure, the fridge is the focal point of a kitchen, but since it's virtually always stocked with food, it can be tricky to remember that it needs to be cleaned too. In fact, because your fridge holds everything from leftover Japanese food to the raw chicken you plan to roast for dinner, it should be cleaned thoroughly, and perhaps more often than you think.
To get the intel on when (and how often) you should clean out the appliance and wipe down the inside—shelves, deli drawer, crisper, and more—we spoke to Tamika D. Sims, PhD, who is the senior director of food technology communications at the International Food Information Council.
When Should You Clean Out Your Refrigerator?
In addition to cleaning up any spills as they happen to prevent the spread of bacteria, you should also give your fridge a deep clean about four times a year—it's a good chore to do when the seasons change. Keep reading for more tips on how to know when your fridge should be cleaned out.
When food has spoiled
"The time to clean out different parts of the fridge depends on the directions on the food/beverage package and the date labels, which are also called 'open dating' labels. These labels give the date to consume the food/beverage at its best quality," Sims says.
Contrary to popular belief, Sims points out that except in the case of infant formula products, which are regulated by the federal government, these dates are not an indication of safety. "A 'Best if Used By/Before' date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date. A 'Sell-By' date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is also not a safety date," she adds. "A 'Use-By' date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date, except for when used on infant formula, and a 'Freeze-By' date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date."
If you notice that many foods in your fridge have passed their sell-by dates, it's a good idea to check and see if they are still fresh. Any food that has molded, changed color, or is emitting a foul odor should promptly be thrown away. After disposing of spoiled food, you should wipe down the areas where the food was with hot, soapy water to prevent the spread of bacteria.
After a spill or a leak, especially raw meat or poultry
To avoid cleaning your fridge more often than you need to, make sure to store all of your food correctly. "Storing food properly is the first step to keeping it as fresh and safe as possible for as long as possible. This Refrigerator & Freezer Storage Chart, provided by the Food and Drug Administration, includes safe storage times for many widely used foods," Sims says. "However, the FDA advises that all food should be examined for spoilage regardless of the dates stamped on the packaging."
When food is not stored properly, spills or leaks may occur, and in that case the affected areas of your refrigerator will need to be cleaned. Proper food storage is especially important with regards to raw meat or poultry products, as any leaks associated with those foods can cause harmful bacteria to spread to other items in your refrigerator. If you notice that raw chicken or steak, for example, has leaked in your fridge, be sure to thoroughly clean the affected area with warm, soapy water. You should remove the shelf or drawer to complete the cleaning process.
When in doubt, throw it out
"According to the USDA, the freezer should be set to a temperature of 0 degrees or colder. Frozen food generally has a much longer shelf life than refrigerated food, but its quality may begin to deteriorate after an extended period," says Sims. "Use your discretion when deciding whether to throw away food. It should be safe to consume a food beyond its date label if it has been properly stored. However, consumers should regularly evaluate their pantry and refrigerator, monitor any changes in texture and smell, and use their best judgment—if in doubt, throw it out."
How to Clean Your Fridge
Now that you know a bit more about when to clean out your refrigerator, let's move on to how to clean one of the most important parts of your home.
According to USDA, these are the best steps for cleaning your fridge and freezer:
Dispose of any spoiled food. "If you are not sure if it is still good, it is better to toss it than take a chance," Sims notes.
Remove shelves, crispers, and ice trays. Wash them thoroughly with hot water and detergent (such as dish soap). Per Sims, all items can then be rinsed with a sanitizing solution, which can be made by mixing one tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach in a gallon of water.
"The interior walls of the refrigerator and freezer, including the door and gasket (door seal), can be washed with hot water and baking soda," Sims explains. "Afterwards, you should rinse everything with the same sanitizing solution as above."
"Lastly, leave the door open for about 15 minutes to allow free air circulation," Sims shares.