“The Food Police” (How to Organize a Refrigerator)

I’d like to share a story about two clients of mine, Nancy and Fancy. They are sisters who have shared the same home for over 34 years together. Both sisters are warm, intelligent, caring people who love each other very much. The live in a nice suburban home in northern New Jersey. The only problem is… they organize differently and their organizing expectations and organizing comfort levels are very different.

Nancy is “neat and tidy”, all about productivity and getting things done. Fancy is creative, artistic, social and all about abundance with a casual, peaceful, “I’ll get to it eventually” spirit.

As Nancy ages, she is more aware that Fancy’s lack of interest in getting and keeping their haven organized is possibly placing undue stress on their living arrangements. Fancy, on the other hand, realizes that organization is indeed important both in general and for Nancy’s sake, but it’s just not that easy or simple for Fancy. Additionally, Fancy still works but Nancy is retired. Since Nancy “sees” more of the clutter than Fancy does and is home more often, this adds to Nancy’s dissatisfaction visually as well as the functionality from basement to attic.

I’ve worked with Nancy for years on many projects but there is one particular area we have not organized, that drives Nancy crazy and that is… ready, it’s the refrigerator. Yes, I said the refrigerator. Nancy calls herself “The Food Police”. The first time I heard her say that I did have a good laugh but I understand as an organizer what was driving her mad. Every time Nancy opens the frig door which is multiple times a day, she does not see order. She sees food chaos. All kinds of different foods scattered throughout the shelves and door areas with no sense of order. Fancy on the other hand sees food creations and cooking and eating opportunities. And guess who does the cooking? If you guessed Fancy, you are right. She’s a great cook. Guess who should do the clean-up and organizing after a meal? If you said Nancy, you’re right again!

Since I have not had an organizing session revolving around this big white, cold storage container we call a refrigerator, I’m going to tell you how I would involve them in the organizing formula whether I’m doing whole-home decluttering or just a fruit drawer.

So as a Valentine’s Refresher Course, here is S S P O E 101 solely based on refrigerator-type food:

  1. Sort – Pull all of the food out of the refrigerator onto the kitchen table and countertops and separate into categories that make sense to you such as:
    1. Dairy
    2. Meats
    3. Vegetables
    4. Fruits
    5. Condiments
    6. Beverages
    7. Leftovers
  2. Select – Make decisions on whether or not that item should still be part of your diet. How old is the jar of fig spread? Are the potatoes growing arms and legs like Mr. Potato Head? Do you really adore capers? Refine your categories down to what you would truly like to cook and eat.
  3. Purge – Once you’ve decided which foods are staying, get rid of the rest. (Use this opportunity to also clean the refrigerator inside and out including pulling it away from the wall and doing the floor underneath and the wall right behind it including the back of the refrigerator.)
  4. Organize/Containerize/Labelize – Now that you see the “volume” of each category, decide on a home for each “kind of food”. Where should the fruit live, yogurts live, drinks live? Which shelves, part of a shelf or door should be their home? If you give each category a designated place to land in the ice box and make it habitual after shopping, food prep, eating and cleaning up, then you will always know where to put the soda, leftovers, condiments etc. I’ll even add that you could make labels for the shelves, door areas or containers to solidify the homes even better.
  5. Equalize/Enlist/Eliminate/Enjoy – Now that all food groups have designated spots, one must be disciplined enough to always return the foods to their proper homes on a daily eating/cooking and weekly food shopping basis. Enlist all who eat in the home to help. Eliminate the waste and spoiled foods each week. Make sure you use FIFO – First In, First Out when it comes to your perishables. If you do all the above, you will ENJOY yourself every time you open up the refrigerator door and there will be no more need for The Food Police.

It sounds easy enough but it is hard work living and sharing homes with others. If Nancy and Fancy take the hour together to organize their refrigerator, there will be order afterwards. But to keep The Food Police at bay, here are some tips for issuing a warning:

  • When an item is not correctly returned to its home, kindly tell the person where is should go and communicate the importance for the good of the whole household.
  • Decide who has what roles in the kitchen. If one person cooks, can another person clean up? If someone empties the dishwasher, can another set the table?
  • Label areas as best you can if you think it will help people put items away into proper homes.
  • Decide on shared versus private spaces. Even in a refrigerator, maybe Nancy could have herself a shelf, Fancy another shelf and then the reminder is shared with items they both use.

Enjoy your loved ones while you have them in your daily lives and try not to get too upset by our organizational differences.

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