I think about what’s in my refrigerator—a lot. At least once a week, before my Saturday trip to the farmer’s market and grocery store, I go through and toss everything expired, making room for the new stuff and noting which staples need a resupply. The process of putting away the groceries on Saturday afternoon can take up to an hour, because I’ve evolved so many little food storage hacks. Because I cook a lot, my diligence feels like a necessity—the shelves are always full to overflowing with Pyrexes full of leftovers, bowls of citrus, and big Mason jars of the chicken broth I made a few days ago and have yet to freeze.
Such close curation might seem like a good, diligent habit to have, but it creates household conflict. When my husband brings home growlers of beer I ask, with uncalled-for pointedness, “Just where are we going to put that?” The Sunday fridge, crammed with repackaged and labeled groceries, is a foreign country to him, and he regularly looks into its packed depths and asks “What in here can I eat?”
So I find myself asking: Is my fridge vigilance freakish? Or am I good—even, dare I say, normal?
I surveyed 179 friends, colleagues, and family about their refrigerator usage habits. I found that, out of the three-quarters female, half-middle-aged pool of respondents, I’m among only 16.8 percent who go through the fridge every week to purge expired food. (Half of the group, asked about their fridge-editing habits, selected the answer “Whenever I see something disgusting and realize things have gotten out of control.”)
I think I keep too wide a variety of food around. The top shelf of our fridge is always so crowded that Pyrexes hide behind beverages, and we need to stretch long to get at the three different kinds of kefir in the back row. Some of the poll responses corroborated these fears: I’m one of a small sliver (10.1 percent) of respondents that regularly has more than 4 kinds of pickles on hand. (Right now: Beet and ginger, dilly beans, two kinds of sour dill spears, kimchi, and pickled young ginger.) Only 28.5 percent of respondents wished their fridges were bigger. A little more than half (53.1 percent) thought their fridges were just right, which seems insane to me. On the other hand, I’ve done very little optimizing of the physical infrastructure of the fridge, and maybe I should be doing what 59.8 percent of respondents have done: move shelves up and down based on usage patterns, to fit more stuff in.
None of us—not me, not my respondents—are probably cleaning our fridges enough. (By “cleaning” I mean “taking every single thing out, applying elbow grease to get rid of all of the jam spills and jar rings and old bits of lettuce, and then putting every single thing back in.”) I do this about twice a year, like 19 percent of respondents. 20.1 percent do it once a year; 14 percent selected “When someone is coming to visit and I’m ashamed,” and 22.9 percent replied “When I switch houses.” This may be a matter of life transition; I used to follow the “Clean it when you move” school of thought, but now that I’m a homeowner and will have the same fridge indefinitely, I need to step it up.
Here are some things I do that are apparently not at all normal:
Pyrexes: I like Pyrexes—a generic term for the fridge-to-freezer-to-microwave style of glass food storage container—a lot. Over the last five years, I’ve phased out most plastic food storage, and have a kitchen cabinet devoted to my empty Pyrexes in all different sizes. Only a quarter of people who replied felt the same way, picking Pyrex over Tupperware for reasons of health (storing food in plastic isn’t demonstrably bad for you, but that’s a fairly new finding that may not have trickled out into common knowledge) or durability.
Cheese storage: I’m one of only 2.2 percent of respondents who stores half-eaten cheese blocks in those more-breathable cheese paper bags. (Most people just toss the thing in a Ziploc once it’s open.) You guys, the cheese lasts so long this way! Yes, I did try using parchment paper and string to fashion bespoke wrappings and avoid making this separate purchase; no, it didn’t work as well.
Greens storage: Here’s what I do. I take a bunch of greens (kale, collards, arugula, lettuce) and strip it of its rubber band. I open up the end of a paper-towel roll, and start layering in the greens, rolling the towel over periodically so that the individual leaves, still coated in some wetness from the grocery store’s misting or the farmer’s early-morning water dunk, don’t stick to each other and develop that gunky black stuff around their edges. When I’m done, I have a cinnamon roll pillow of towels and greens, which I put into two gallon Ziplocs, and then insert in the crisper drawer. This isn’t as big of a waste as it seems, since the paper towel, usually just slightly damp, can be reused after you unroll your salad for the day.
7.4 percent of respondents do this, too, and I was honestly happy to find these kindred spirits exist. Most people, however, just put their bunch of greens in a plastic bag, then stick them in the crisper.
One thing I do that apparently is fairly normal: I put special foods I don’t want my husband to eat in the crisper drawers. It’s the one advantage of my dominance over the grocery maintenance in my household (or, perhaps, his “male refrigerator blindness,” as one respondent described their own partner’s inability to navigate the shelves): He’ll never even know these raspberries exist, and my morning yogurt-granola-fruit bowl will be safe.
It turns out people who live with other people have all kinds of tricks to hide special food. Ice cream sandwiches go under frozen veggies, or in a little-used pull-out freezer shelf. The butter compartment hides chocolate for one person, candy for another. And one respondent reported keeping “a whole separate mini-fridge for my private snacks”—a next-level lifehack. For people living with partners, hiding food can be a way to help a partner refrain from eating too much of a food they’re trying to lay off, or a statement of economic independence. One person replied that in their household, when it comes to foods purchased with the joint credit card, there will be “no bitching about who ate the last one.” For snacks purchased with discretionary individual budgets: “Hands off, motherfucker!”
So, am I normal? I still don’t know. I wish I’d asked how much takeout or restaurant food respondents typically consume per week. I think there might be some interesting correlations between my more rigid fridge habits and the higher rate of home cooking my less-restaurant-rich hometown demands. Clearly, more scientific investigation is called for.
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