Spring-Clean Your Refrigerator and Freezer

Tips for keeping foods fresh, safe, and tasty

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Hopeful signs of spring are everywhere, with birds chirping, tulips and daffodils showing off their colors, and plenty of activity on the tennis courts and baseball fields. For many of us, all these things are also a sign that it's time to get started on the annual spring cleaning.

This year, along with the yard work and baseboards, resolve to add the refrigerator and freezer to your spring-cleaning list. Lurking deep inside them could be a scary "science experiment" or an ice-encrusted mess begging to be thrown away. And cleaning out your freezer and fridge means more than just a tidier-looking kitchen. Food kept too long or at improper temperatures can become contaminated with bacteria, which can cause illness.

Most people, it turns out, don't understand the dangers of improper food storage. The American Dietetic Association found that only 40% of consumers knew that eating food that has been stored in refrigerators warmer than 40 degrees Fahrenheit can increase the risk of food-borne illness.

Indeed, food poisoning and other food-borne illnesses are very common. Last year, there were an estimated 76 million cases of food-borne illness in the United States, according to the CDC.

When in Doubt, Throw It Out

You can't always tell if a food has spoiled by its smell or appearance. Don't take chances with your health. The advice from the FDA: When it doubt, throw it out.

If food looks or smells strange, don't even risk tasting it -- just toss it. Mold you can see on the surface is just the tip of the iceberg; there could be poisons under the surface of the food that aren't detectable by the naked eye.

With a few foods -- such as hard cheeses, salami, and firm fruits -- you can cut the mold away, but be sure to remove a large section around any mold you can see. In general, food with mold should be tossed.

You already know that you need to throw out those containers of "mystery food" found in the bowels of your fridge.

But what about those jars of condiments that have been open and around for years? Most will stay fresh for two months on the door of the refrigerator. That part of the fridge is designed for storing condiments, because their acidic content tends to make them more resistant to bacterial contamination than other foods. Still, their quality is likely to decrease with time.

Prevent Food-Borne Illness

Your role in food safety starts as soon as you leave the grocery store. Go straight home and immediately stow your groceries. Check the labels of foods to determine the best way to store them.

Make sure your refrigerators is at 40 degrees or less and your freezer 0 degrees or less. The only sure way to check the temperature is by putting a clearly visible thermometer inside each compartment (but not on the door). Check it often as temperatures can fluctuate, especially in warm weather. If temperatures get too high, adjust the controls.

It's also important to keep your refrigerator and freezer clean. Wipe up any spills immediately. And once a week, wipe down the interior walls, shelves, and rubber gaskets with a weak cleaning solution to sanitize.

Food Storage Dos and Don'ts

Here are some tips to remember when storing and using foods:

  • Wrap foods tightly with two layers of freezer wrap before putting in the freezer.
  • Store eggs in their cartons -- and don't keep them on the refrigerator door.
  • Don't wash fresh produce until you're ready to use it. Store it in perforated plastic bags, and use within a few days. Bananas should not be refrigerated.
  • To allow for air circulation in either your fridge or freezer, don't overfill the compartments. Without good circulation, it's difficult to maintain the proper temperatures.
  • Store leftovers in tightly covered containers within two hours after cooking. Use in 3-5 days.
  • Store food and cleaning supplies separate.
  • Keep potatoes and onions in a cool, dry location. Don't refrigerate them or keep them under the sink, where moisture from pipes can cause damage.
  • Check use-by or sell-by dates on food packages. Remember, these dates don't apply once the package is opened.
  • Best-if-used-by dates are the most reliable ones to follow. They take normal handling into account.
  • Put raw meat on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator, in a plastic bag. This will keep the juices from dripping onto other foods.

How Long Can I Freeze It?

Food kept in the freezer so long that ice crystals dominate its appearance is safe to eat, since no organisms can live in subzero temperatures. And the nutritional quality remains intact. Still, you probably don't want to eat it -- the quality of this frozen tundra will certainly be less than ideal.

To prevent freezer burn, make sure that the food is tightly wrapped with freezer-quality wrap, and get as much air out between the food and the wrap.

For some guidelines on how long you can safely keep food in the refrigerator or freezer, I consulted the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Here's a chart with the times for various foods.

PRODUCT In Refrigerator
40 degrees Fahrenheit
(5 degrees Celsius)
In Freezer
0 degrees F
(-18 degrees C)
Fresh Meat:    
Beef: Ground 1-2 days 3-4 months
Steaks and roasts 3-5 days 6-12 months
Pork: Chops 3-5 days 4-6 months
Ground 1-2 days 3-4 months
Roasts 3-5 days 4-6 months
Cured Meats:    
Lunch Meat 3-5 days 1-2 months
Sausage 1-2 days 1-2 months
Hot dogs Unopened, 2 weeks
Opened, 1 week
Prepared salads (egg, tuna, etc) 3-5 days Don't freeze
Gravy 1-2 days 2-3 months
Soups or stews 3-4 days 2-3 months
Lean (such as cod,
flounder, haddock)
1-2 days up to 6 months
Fatty (such as blue, perch,
1-2 days 2-3 months
Chicken: Whole 1-2 days 12 months
Parts 1-2 days 9 months
Giblets 1-2 days 3-4 months
Dairy products:    
Swiss, brick, processed
3-4 weeks *
Soft cheese 1 week 6 months
Milk 5 days 1 month
Ice cream, ice milk - 2-4 months
Butter 1-3 months 6-9 months
Buttermilk 7-14 days 3 months
Cream cheese 2 weeks -
Cream 3-5 days 4 months
Sour cream 7-21 days -
Yogurt 7-10 days -
Eggs: Fresh in the shell 3 weeks -
Hard-boiled 1 week -
Pasteurized liquid 3 days (opened)
10 days (unopened)
1 year
Mayonnaise 2 months don't freeze
TV dinners - 3-4 months
Store-bought convenience meals 1-2 days -
Cooked meat leftovers 3-4 days 2-3 months
Pizza 3-4 days 1-2 months
Stuffing, cooked 3-4 days 1 month
Dough - tube can, cookies use-by date 2 months (don't freeze tube cans)
* Cheese can be frozen, but freezing will affect the texture and taste.
SOURCES: Food Marketing Institute for fish and dairy products, USDA for all other foods

Originally Published Friday, April 29, 2005.
Medically updated April 17, 2008.

SOURCES: FDA. U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service. The Food Keeper, the Food Marketing Institute.

©2005 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors