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How to clean out your fridge in 3 steps, like a real adult

A guide to cleaning up old food and its funky smells


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It's never a bad time to clean out your fridge. Whether you've run out of room to stow new ingredients, or simply suspect the rotten smell inside your fridge may belong to some long-forgotten spinach, the solution is simple: get that sucker clean! Here are some tips that will help you get your fridge smelling fresher than ever.

1. Stop Hoarding Leftovers

Most foods aren't meant to last forever.

The first step to a thorough fridge clean-out is something you should try to do on a weekly basis: Dump the rotten food. Squishy produce, expired yogurt, condiments you bought three years ago and never had occasion to use—stick it all in the trash.

And make sure you look behind all the things you usually don't look behind. There could be some furry Chinese takeout hiding back there.

Takeout's great,but make sure you don't lose track of it. It can be a lot of work to remove unpleasant smells.
Credit: Getty Images / rez-art

Takeout's great, but make sure you don't lose track of it. It can be a lot of work to remove unpleasant smells.

Once you’ve sorted out all the garbage, find a temporary place to stash everything else. A thorough fridge cleaning is best done when the fridge is empty and unplugged. If you’ve got a second fridge somewhere in the house, you’re all set; otherwise, you might want to pull out a big cooler and some ice. If it’s still cold enough where you live, just leave food on the back porch for a bit.

[Note: While you're sitting around with an empty icebox, this is the perfect time to pull it away from the wall and clean that hard-to-reach space behind the fridge. If you have an older model, you should dust off the exposed coils on the back; your fridge won't have to work as hard if the coils are clean.]

2. Scrub-a-Dub-Dub

Gonna Wash that Smell Right Out of My Fridge…

To get the job done right, take out the shelves and drawers and wash them in the sink to make sure you don’t miss any hard-to-reach spots. Don’t forget to wipe down the interior walls of the fridge, too. But the real question is... what do you wash it with?

A mixture of salt and water serve as an unscented cleaning solution.
Credit: Getty Images / Anna-Ok

A mixture of salt and water serve as an unscented cleaning solution.

Sure, you could use some sort of household cleaning product, but no one really wants their lettuce to taste like Windex. Here are three options that are odor-neutral and won't lace your shelves with chemicals:

Water and baking soda. Use a basic paste of water and baking soda. This should get out most of the gooey spills, is great at neutralizing basic odors, and leaves a relatively subtle scent behind.

Water and salt. Put a handful of salt in a gallon of warm water to create a great, non-abrasive mixture that’ll clean your fridge without adding a scent. This is a good choice for folks who want to perfume the fridge later.

Tomato juice or vinegar. For particularly nasty smells, wipe down the inside of your fridge with a sponge soaked in undiluted tomato juice. Just make sure you rinse afterwards with warm, soapy water. If a bucket of tomato juice is a little too macabre for you, full-strength white vinegar can be used instead. (Great for washing down the dusty, crusty top of your fridge, too!)

For more intense bits of stuck-on food, a small amount of WD-40 should do the trick, but you’ll want to wipe down any spots you use it on with water before you put your food back.

3. And Now... Re-odorize

A fridge by any other name would smell as sweet.

An open box of baking soda is the most traditional tool for absorbing odors and keeping things smelling fresh, but there are options available with a bit more pizzazz.

Coffee grounds or tea bags are classic smell absorbers, and you can even use the grounds as fertilizer for potted plants instead of tossing them out with the left-over Chinese. Alternatively, half an onion or even some pieces of charcoal work just as well. Leave the odor-absorbing item in the fridge by itself for 24 hours before you put your food back in for optimal results.

Coffee grounds work as a natural deodorizer.
Credit: Getty Images / ajafoto

Coffee grounds work as a natural deodorizer.

You can use any of those items year-round to keep the fridge smelling fresh, but there’s always the chance—and this comes from personal experience—that the scent of the odor-eater will end up adding a scent to the food. Ever had a jar of mayonnaise smell like coffee? It’s weird, folks.

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Instead, vanilla extract or lemon juice can serve as a more subtle perfume that won’t overpower your groceries. A cotton ball soaked in vanilla extract or lemon juice, when placed on a fridge shelf for 12 hours, will add a pleasant aroma. You can also place lemon slices throughout the interior, but make sure you remember where you put them; rotten lemon slices will add a scent to your fridge, but not in the way you want.

Happy cleaning!

Editor's Note

This article was originally published on March 10, 2014, but has been updated with new information. November 15, 2016