The Queen of Food Space: 10 Ways to Maximize Fridge Capacity

First off, I’m surprised to have so bloggers now following DirtNKids. I had hoped to have some more substantive posts to share these next few weeks, but alas. Time has not been on my side with kids home for the summer.

By now, you may know I have more than my fair share of children.  I didn’t exactly plan for that, but it is what it is, and all of those mouths must be fed healthy, wholesome (even sometimes crappy and fun!) food.  Combine that with a 50-something who lifts weights daily (no, you can’t have him) and a 40-something who lifts dirt and equipment, and you have a veritable food-eating household.

But there’s one teensy-weensy problem.  I am equipped with only a 21-cubic-foot fridge-freezer combo (that’s 15.6-cubic-feet of fridge space) and nothing else for keeping things below room temperature.   I have few options to change that.

First, a little history.  Stay with me now.

This house must have been built by an idiot.  It has plenty of space for all of us including 1.5 acres of natural beauty, more than 100 trees, a huge walk-in attic (for storing crap) and a creek in the backyard.  What it seriously lacks is a kitchen — a/k/a/ the heart of the house.  I knew this right at the beginning, but everything else on my list was checked, so we bought it anyway.  There’s always the remodel option, right?   Pft.

Wrong.  But that’s a story for another post.

The fridge door, as it opens into the walk space.

The walking space between my work counter — which has the sink, a stove, and a dishwasher — is just deep enough for one person, a real butt-bumper for two.  Behind it is a wall of cabinets and drawers.  When the fridge is open at one end and the dishwasher at the other, the kitchen is completely closed off.  You will be inexplicably trapped.  (It’s how I get my kids to do kitchen duty though.  There’s no escape.  Muaaahaha…)

I have but one 18″ wide prep counter between the sink and the stove and an equivalently useless counter to the right of the stove.  The other beautiful and expansive counter tops are well outside of the kitchen area, on the other side of the high bar.  Useless.  I wish I knew who designed the kitchen so I could go egg his house once a week.

Still don’t get what I’m griping about?  Okay.  Here’s a close-up for you:

This door has pinched many-a finger…

This 10-yr-old model boasts just shy of a 32″ depth, shallower still that any of today’s models. They blame it on the insulation and Energy Star ratings.  Whatever.  A meager inch would assure that the door would be unable to open past the counter.  Sure, I could go with a counter-depth model or French-door design — available for upwards of $3,000.  The trade-off is that I would lose net fridge space and door — with four kids at home — would be perpetually open (those don’t self-close).   Damn physics.

How about a fridge-only model?  I have considered this option, perhaps locating a freezer-only chest in the laundry room, but these units are only available with the door opening right.  I need a left-opener.  That would be far worse than the door not opening all the way.

What does all this mean, DirtNKids Chick?   I am the reigning queen of managing food space.   And my food space is not the pantry, it’s the fridge.

Here’s how I’ve managed the situation after 6 years.  Maybe it will help you too.

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Top 10 Ways to Maximize Fridge Space

1)  Reduce Condiments.  Most of mine are in the one-time-use category, so I buy only the smallest portion that’s needed for a particular recipe (2-oz of sesame oil vs. the bulkier 4-oz jar) .  I keep only the most daily condiments in the door (prime real estate!), everything else is in the bottom where the drawers used to be.  Some condiments can be made from scratch with ready-to-use ingredients.  Try this spicy brown mustard on for size.

2)  Buy only what you need for the week.  Okay, so this one takes a little planning.

Additional fruit and veggie storage, over the recycling cans

No, it takes a lot of planning.  If you’re already used to going to the store 4-5 times a week for this-and-that, stop it right now.  (Unless you can walk to the grocery.)  Save that gasoline.  You’ll get your groove eventually, but don’t reward yourself now for bad planning.  And if you’re not a big fan of cooking every night (uh, like me), plan for only 2-3 gourmet family meals (in case of a change in plans) and several other “throw-togethers.”  It may take several weeks of training, but you’ll zone in on your favorite recipes and get to where you don’t even need a list to shop.

3)  Learn how to best store fresh foods.  I vote for veggies.  They store better than other foods, won’t kill you when they start to “go,” and most veggies will store just fine outside of the fridge, leaving your precious energy-consuming real estate for the things you must refrigerate (dairy, meat, cooked left-overs).   The authors of Fresh the Movie (a great documentary, by the way, streaming on Netflix) have listed a few storage tips on their blog.  I use a 3-tier-basket system for quick-bites — apples, citrus, bananas on the bottom for the kids, ripening fruits in the middle, and onions and garlic and roots on top.

Longer term fruit and veggie storage — on the counter

Many picks from my own garden sit on the counter for weeks; currently it’s pumpkin and tomatoes from my spring garden that got ripped up.

4)  Store meats in the freezer, thaw only the next meal’s meat in the fridge.  Be sure to put your frozen meat in a glass dish to catch any juices (yuck!) as it thaws.

5)  I hate drawers.  You have to open them.  If you feel the same way as I do, simply remove the produce drawers (as I did) and store all long-term (a/k/a/ doesn’t spoil) condiments and eggs there.  What you can’t see, you don’t miss.  Until you need it, and there it is.  Hey — it’s not spoiled either!

6)  Place kid stuffs at their level, everything else up top at Mom and Dad’s eye-level.  I don’t know about you, but I like when my kids fend for themselves!  Even my 5-yr-old knows how to make a nice healthy garden salad.  The greens, chopped tomato, cucumber slices, fresh bell pepper (I prep the day’s allowance in the morning) and grated parmesan are all right there, each in their own respective containers.  Jelly, almond milk, coconut milk, and (if they’re lucky) cow’s milk are all in the door, also bottom row.  A two-gallon container of  water is on the bottom shelf too, to encourage drinking throughout the day.

7)  Place leftovers to the front.  What you can’t see, you don’t miss.  Until you need it, and ooo — that has become most yucky and stinky.  So, don’t put it back there to get lost.

IKEA Container Pack – $3.99 (Only 3 Shown)

8)   Use square-ish containers, rather than round ones.  They just fit in much more nicely.  Tall ones to the back, short ones stacked only high enough to still see the tall ones behind them.  As a general rule, I use glass or ceramic for anything that will be reheated directly from the fridge (which is about all of our leftovers).

9)  Work aging produce into your next meal.  Does it look like it won’t make it another day?  Juice it with some cucumber and apple or just cook it.  Just about anything goes with rice. Try something, anything, before tossing it to the compost.  Whatever you do, please don’t toss it to the landfill.

10)  If your fridge is not less than half full when it’s “time to shop,” seriously rethink your shopping trip!  Why is it that all that food is still in your fridge yet you have nothing to eat?  Go back to #2 and try again.  You may have to do this more than once before you get with the program.

Our 15.6 cubic feet of Fridge Space

23 thoughts on “The Queen of Food Space: 10 Ways to Maximize Fridge Capacity

    1. Nothing like ONE broccoli crown in a drawer “going south” an ruining everything else in it too. Using individual containers per veggie prevents this as well. I use old T-shirts cut into small pieces (and put just under the lid) to minimize condensate that forms sometimes. Easily switched out.

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  1. You are so right. Square containers are the way to go. Why didn’t I ever think to remove those darn drawers. Great idea.

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  2. Thank you for visiting my blog and introducing me to yours. You have some really good tips here – even for somebody who has been keeping house for over 60 years.
    Lillian
    lillianscupboard.wordpress.com

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    1. Good to have you come by as well! I only even glanced at some of your quilting…just fabulous. I haven’t stitched in many, many years.

      As far as organization is concerned, my first choice is always “how can I do this better?” If I can avoid a shopping trip, I will. Like the plague.

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  3. A post after my own heart – great advice. That storage tip link is bookmarked (and will likely find it’s way to 222 million tons sometime soon) – and numbers 9 and 10 really resonate. People are so quick to throw away produce that isn’t perfect, when the reality is that it is usually perfectly usable. Turning things that don’t seem to go together or that are threatening to go bad into something delicious is a fun little challenge, and a great way to exercise those creative muscles.

    Must confess, I was once quite addicted to sauces, and had a huge collection of bottles and jars that never seemed to do anything but grow and take over more of the fridge. A great way to break that habit is to stock up on herbs and spices and the basics (like soy sauce & vinegar), and make what you need from scratch.

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    1. You were on my mind when I wrote #9. I almost linked your blog to it! I’m still learning that most “sauces” can be made easily with just a few spices and ingredients — that you can keep on-hand easily un-refrigerated, in the pantry.

      The beauty of slightly older produce (veggies) is that you may lose some of the nutrient value, but you still get the fiber content and macro-nutrients that nature intended. Of course, I wouldn’t even THINK of eating some of the produce from the link of your latest post. Yikes!! Great for photos maybe, but not for the tummy.

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  4. Aside from the missing drawers – that looks a lot like our fridge! I really like the no-drawers approach, and will see if I can get DH on board to give it a go.

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  5. *take the drawers out* – reading this was such an “Ah-Ha” moment!!! I too enjoy a small fridge/freezer combo and the drawers are useless! I use one for veggies & one for fruit but everything never fits! The drawers will be removed ASAP! I generally like to challenge people when they claim to be the “queen” of something but this time I graciously give you the title! You’ve earned it, thanks for your tips!

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    1. Thanks, Honest! If there’s one thing I like less than throwing away food, it’s spending money when I don’t feel it’s entirely necessary. I love the challenge of improving on something that’s already there.

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  6. I found this post fascinating! What does that say about me. Not only that, I would go so far as to say it’s Freshly Pressed worthy. I love your tips in both an organizational perspective and an environmental perspective. AND I’m sharing it with my husband. He is the king of efficiency and is always reorganizing our refrigerator to make it the most space-efficient. Leftovers up top to the front is his thing too.

    You are amazing, Shannon! Seriously. I don’t tell you this enough. You’re my hero in more ways than one.

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    1. It’s super-hard not to seem whiny when it comes to my kitchen space. My new mantra is, “Ah! Here I am in this wonderful space which helps me provide nourishment for my family!” I say it with a smile on my face, but I don’t fool my husband. 🙂

      Thanks, Angie. That means a lot coming from you. I cringed when I saw the 1,300+ word count, but it simply all must be there — I didn’t chisel a thing out of my original text (which is my norm).

      Tell Hubby that I’m drinking my warmed up coffee from yesterday. Still tastes great!

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      1. You’re a woman after his own heart. In fact, you might be the female version of him. Maybe that’s why you and I get along so well.

        The thing I do when I get bummed about my limited space is to imagine what my house would seem like to an apartment-dweller in NYC. Unless they’re a multi-millionaire, they’d likely be looking at your kitchen thinking it’s bigger than their entire living room.

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      2. Someone always has it worse. I like to look back at the time when we were living in Asia, with only a small fridge, two burners, no oven, and no hot water. We had to boil our water before drinking and it was room temp showers every day. It keeps things in perspective.

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  7. Your house reminds me of my parents’ house. Great house, awful kitchen. I also tell them if I want condiments, I’ll rifle through their fridge, but never if I want actual food. I’ll have to give them your tips!

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    1. My parents’ fridges are mostly condiments. I think this is the norm for most fridges. Considering that a condiment is NOT food (it’s a garnish for food), I put reducing this item up at #1. We definitely have our favorites, but limit them to the smallest of containers. Nothing from Costco goes into our fridge!

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