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Spring Cleaning Day 4: Let’s Tackle the Fridge

A brightly light kitchen with a stainless steel refrigerator.

Ovens and stovetops can certainly get messy with frequent use, but the fridge—the food storage workhorse of the kitchen—bears the brunt of drips, spills, and general messiness. Let’s get it fresh and clean.

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It’s tough to feel good about your increasingly clean kitchen if your fridge looks like a science experiment abandoned years ago. Today we’ll dig in and get it looking great!

Why Clean Your Fridge First?

When it comes to spring cleaning you really ought to tackle every appliance, big and small, in your kitchen. Food storage areas and food prep tools by their very nature get gross because of all the drips, splatters, and more that land on them.

But opting to clean your fridge before tackling your oven, toaster, stand mixer, or other appliance offers a two-prong reward. First, unlike the old caked-on drips or spills on your oven (which are unsightly but ultimately harmless), the drips and spills in your fridge can harbor bacteria and other harmful things that you don’t want contaminating your food.

Second, and quite useful to our goals, spring cleaning your fridge doesn’t just deal with the bacteria-harboring drips, it offers you a chance to purge the contents and make way for fresh food.

Prepare for Safe Food Handling

Unlike the previous days in our cleaning challenge, this is the first one that deals with food safety. So before we dive into the cleaning aspect of the project, let’s go over some quick food safety tips.

Most of us aren’t cleaning out an empty fridge which means there will be a period of time where we have to remove food from its ideal storage temperature.

To that end, we encourage everyone to do the best they can to keep food cool while cleaning using the tools they have available. If it’s still cool enough where you live that the nighttime temperatures dip down to 40F or below, take advantage of that and put your food in laundry baskets out on the patio or in the garage while you clean.

If it’s too warm for that use a cooler to hold the food most likely to spoil (like meat and milk) and/or clean one shelf at a time to minimize how much food is out of the fridge. Items like ketchup, pickles, and other acidic foods are very unlikely to be harmed when left out for the duration of the cleaning session, so feel free to park those on the counter to keep more perishable food in the fridge.

Declutter Before Cleaning

An open refrigerator with food inside.

Before you dig into the task of actually cleaning the fridge, take a moment to declutter. Not only does this take care of one of the easiest steps first, but it frees up space in the fridge, so if you’re using the one-shelf-at-a-time method you have more room.

Suffer from food-purging paralysis? We get you—sometimes it’s painful to toss that honey mustard you haven’t opened in a year or the leftovers you meant to eat.

Here’s a quick checklist to burn through to get started. Toss any of the following items:

  • Leftovers more than a couple of days old.
  • Raw meat more than a couple of days old.
  • Infrequently used condiments.
  • The food you no longer eat frequently or enjoy.

One thing you’ll notice is that we didn’t mention “check the expiration dates”—because the way expirations dates are used is almost meaningless. So invest less energy in squinting at dates and more energy in admitting you’re probably never going to eat those leftovers.

Cleaning Your Refrigerator

Old and forgotten about food purged from the fridge, it’s time to get down the business of actually cleaning it.

What You Need

When it comes to cleaning your refrigerator, there are only a few minor things to keep in mind besides the food safety issues we already raised above. You want to use food-safe cleaners in your fridge. (It is, after all, where you store a lot of your food.)

You also want to use non-abrasive cleaners and cleaning tools. Not only do scratches look bad, but they become areas where grime and bacteria gather.

With that in mind, let’s look at the simple list of gear you’ll need.

Although a spray bottle can be useful in this task, we tend to like using a small mixing bowl instead.

OXO Good Grips Deep Clean Brush Set

Both brushes are useful for cleaning the fridge, but the "wiper blade" on the smaller brush is especially useful for small gaps and detail cleaning.

Especially if you’re using the one-shelf-at-a-time method to clean out your fridge, using a damp sponge or rag instead of a spray bottle can help you control where the cleaning solution lands.

And, while we’re giving tips, don’t skip the gloves! Wearing gloves when cleaning is always a good idea, but wearing gloves during the kind of spring cleaning bender we’re on is extra important. You don’t want to end the Spring Cleaning Challenge with a clean house but cracked and dry hands.

How to Clean Your Fridge

Someone wiping down the shelves of a refrigerator with a blue rag.
Andrew Rafalsky/Shutterstock

Just like there is an art and science to dusting a room to ensure you don’t knock dust back onto the areas you’ve already cleaned, there is an art to cleaning your fridge in the most efficient way. Here’s how to maximize the cleaning and minimize the fussing. Remember to keep the fridge door closed anytime you aren’t actively inside the fridge cleaning (especially if you have food in there during the cleaning process).

  1. Fill your bowl or spray bottle with a mixture of white vinegar and water in a ratio of roughly one-half cup to one gallon of warm water. (We are never super fussy about measuring this exactly and just dump a hearty splash in our mixing bowl of water.)
  2. If you have not completely emptied your fridge, empty the top shelf now.
  3. Regardless of whether you are doing the one-shelf method or working with an empty fridge, start at the top of the refrigerator.
  4. Wipe down the ceiling, upper sides, and the first shelf using your sponge and warm cleaning solution. If the shelf is particularly sticky or gross, remove it entirely from the fridge and take it to your sink for more extensive scrubbing.
  5. Repeat this process, moving down the fridge shelf-by-shelf.
  6. Pay special attention to your refrigerator drawers. They are prime collection points for grime. Not only do the things placed in them sometimes leak or leave residue, but drips from further up in the fridge often end up either in the drawers or collected under them. You’ll likely need to give them a good scrubbing in the sink.
  7. Use your detail brush or the edge of a sponge to clean in the drawer tracks as well as any other gaps or grooves inside your fridge.
  8. Don’t neglect the very bottom of the fridge. This is where any spills or drips ultimately end up, so don’t be surprised if the fluid-catching depression at the very bottom is a gnarly mess.
  9. Repeat the same top-to-bottom treatment on the shelves in the door.
  10. Using a very damp rag or sponge, clean the edges of the doors and the door seals. Pay extra attention to the top edge of the seal (where dust and spills or drips from anything on top of the fridge end up) and the bottom lip and seal of the fridge (where drips from inside the fridge end up). A good clean seal ensures your fridge isn’t leaking cool air.
  11. Return food to the fridge. Be sure to wipe down any jars or containers you’re returning to the fridge, especially things like jams or jellies, to ensure you don’t immediately put a stick-bottomed container right back onto your clean shelf.
  12. Wipe the outside down with warm water and a damp rag. If you have a stainless steel fridge, now isn’t a bad time to add some dish soap to your cleaning mixture. In our experience water and vinegar doesn’t do a particularly great job cutting greasy hand and fingerprints, but a little dish soap in the mix will help take them right off.

That’s it! With a little bit of food purging and juggling, along with some time scrubbing, you’ll have a sparkling clean fridge that’s free from grime and suspicious food drips.

Time to sit back, enjoy, and maybe reward yourself with some swanky refrigerator organizers to keep your fridge extra tidy going forward.

And hey, if the night is young and you’re not tired of cleaning yet, you can always tackle your oven, too!

We’re almost at the end of the first week and at this point, your kitchen is probably looking pretty good. Stay tuned for the kitchen wrap-up tomorrow. And definitely keep an eye on our Spring Cleaning Challenge page and sign up for our newsletter, if you haven’t already, to get the updates right in your inbox. There are still three weeks left in the challenge!

Jason Fitzpatrick Jason Fitzpatrick
Jason Fitzpatrick is the Editor in Chief of LifeSavvy. He has over a decade of experience in publishing and has authored thousands of articles at LifeSavvy, Review Geek, How-To Geek, and Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »
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