What’s in Your Fridge? Have You Cleaned Your Icebox Lately?

If you only clean your refrigerator once or twice a year, it may not be enough.

Admit it: for most of us, springtime doesn’t elicit spring cleaning. Unlike our parents, who squandered spring sunshine scrubbing windows, doors, floors, walls, and ceilings, we don’t notice accumulated indoor grime when spring finally hits. We’re too busy hosing spider-egg sacs off garden tools, bicycle seats, and white plastic patio chairs.

Want a relatively easy way to alleviate guilt over abandoning your ancestors’ spring housecleaning tradition? Try this: clean your fridge. Few people do. That’s why at dinner parties, hostesses always decline your offer to refill the cream pitcher for them. A recent Wall Street Journal article reported that most Americans clean their refrigerators only once or twice a year. That’s pretty scary because refrigerators contain perishables.

Well, most do. In my father-in-law’s fridge, right beside a giant jar of home-pickled herring, he stored a five-pound coffee can full of hibernating earthworms (for fish bait). My mother-in-law wisely kept a separate refrigerator for the family’s actual food. Only soda pop cans and an occasional cut watermelon shared shelves with the sleeping earthworms and those gruesome chunks of herring.

Anyway, the point is that most refrigerators contain perishables, and perishables—unlike Twinkies and fast-food fries—degrade quickly. For safety, and aesthetic reasons too, wipe refrigerator spills immediately. Wash and rinse interior surfaces often, perhaps tackling only one shelf or drawer at a time. Toss dubious foods at least once week.

How can you tell what’s safe to eat and what isn’t? The Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) provides an online fact sheet that explains all aspects of refrigerator safety, including how long different kinds of perishables can sit in your fridge before you might perish—or wish you would—if you eat them. The “Safe Food Handling Fact Sheet” advises limiting cooked leftovers’ stay in the fridge to four days, raw poultry and ground meats to one or two. Fresh eggs in the shell are okay for three to five weeks, while hard-cooked eggs last only one.

Speaking of eggs, dump the cute little egg cradle that came with your fridge in the trash. Store eggs covered and on the refrigerator’s shelves, not in its door. The door temperature fluctuates; resist the temptation to store milk cartons in it, even though they fit perfectly and are easier to grab there. Avoid keeping other perishables, like mayonnaise, in the door shelves, too. An appliance thermometer will reveal whether your refrigerator is as cold as it should be (40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower for the fridge, 0 degrees for the freezer). The FSIS fact sheet explains how to use appliance thermometers, which are particularly helpful during power outages.

Professional organizer Jennifer Robb, founder of Simple Organizing Strategies in Iowa City, suggests another handy place to find tips for optimizing your refrigerator’s performance. “Read the manual because each refrigerator or freezer is different,” Robb advises.

According to the Wall Street Journal report, though, people usually toss manuals without reading them. I don’t read manuals either, but at least I file them. No, wait, I don’t. My husband does. I think he reads them, too. That’s why, unlike me, he can answer his cell phone without snapping pictures of his nose.

Could I learn anything new by taking Robb’s advice and reading my refrigerator’s manual? Yes! For personal reasons, the cleaning chart stunned me.

Decades ago, I scoured my house before my husband’s aunt’s first visit. She’s a retired county extension service agent and once produced a TV series on proper housekeeping procedures. Minutes into the visit, she wrenched the base grille off my refrigerator and revealed mouse-sized dust balls embedded in the condenser. Oddly, this incident cemented our friendship. We’ve breezed through dozens of happy visits since then discussing dryer lint and similar phenomena.

As my husband’s aunt explained, a clean condenser conserves energy. But guess what! According to my manual, my current refrigerator’s condenser doesn’t require routine cleaning! At least not “in normal home usage surroundings.” Reading further, I discovered that the manual’s author thinks normal homes don’t contain much dust or grease and aren’t subject to “significant pet traffic,” either.

If, like most of us, you’re not vigorously banishing dust, grease, and pet hair from your house this season, you might want to pry off your refrigerator’s base grille and defuzz its condenser.

© 2010 Cheryl Fusco Johnson. See more of her writing at CherylFuscoJohnson.net/.