Declutter the Freezer

Keep your frozen assets in order by following these cleaning and storage tips.

The freezer is a cold and lonely place, a natural refuge for forgotten food. Bulging containers with gaping lids join icy, unlabeled parcels in the Arctic wastes of this House of Mystery Food. The goal of a freezer declutter: to cull the contents to remove unusable food, and return the survivors to an organized space that makes the most of your household's frozen assets.

Freezer: To defrost or not to defrost?

Many modern freezers don't require defrosting, but you'll pay for the convenience of never having to haul out the pans of hot water. Automatic defrost freezers use up to 35 percent more energy than comparable manual defrost models; the auto defrost cycle sucks moisture from frozen food and can adversely affect food quality. Defrost manual defrost freezers when ice buildup reaches 1/4 to 1/2in (5mm to 1cm), or when ice builds up on compressor coils.

Defrosting dos:

  • Cut the power. Before defrosting, turn off the power to the freezer unit and unplug the freezer from the wall.
  • Empty the contents. Remove all the food from the freezer. Store it in ice chests while defrosting and cleaning the freezer.
  • Melt the ice. Either leave the freezer door open until the ice melts naturally (be sure to cover the floor with newspaper to guard against melt water and falling ice) or add heat to speed the process. Use pans of warm water from the sink to melt ice, or wield a blow dryer to force warm air onto the ice. As the ice melts, soak up drips with a sponge, utility towels or cleaning cloths.
  • Clean up. When the freezer is ice-free, scrub out the entire interior with a light paste of baking soda and water. Wipe clean and dry with a fresh cleaning cloth. The soda will absorb any lingering food odors and remove any food spills. If necessary, wash the shelves or the freezer baskets in warm, soapy water. Dry them thoroughly before returning them to the freezer.
  • Return to power. Close the freezer door, plug it in and turn the power back on. Let the freezer run for at least 15 minutes to allow it to cool before returning the frozen food stored in the ice chests.

Defrosting don'ts:

  • Gently does it. Don't use picks, knives or sharp instruments to remove ice from freezer walls. A slip can cause injuries, to you and to delicate freezer coils.
  • Safety first. If using a hair dryer to melt ice, be cautious about electric shock. Do not stand in puddled water or allow watery drips to touch the hair dryer.
  • Skip the suds. Don't wash freezer walls with soapy water. Soap is difficult to rinse clean; a soapy residue can affect the taste of stored food.

Organizing the freezer

Unlike refrigerators, which need a free flow of air to stay cool, freezers operate most efficiently when they are full. However, a full freezer is a dangerous landscape that allows food to go hidden until it is no longer edible. Keep an organized freezer with these tips:

  • Label, label, label! Labeling frozen foods is key to keeping an organized freezer. Label each package - homemade or commercial - with the food's name, number of servings and the date it was added to the freezer. Use a permanent marker pen to write directly on zipper freezer storage bags or freezer paper; stick a computer address label on freezer containers. Hint for computer users: print label sheets of commonly frozen foods ("hamburger patties," "spaghetti sauce," "chicken pieces") to make quick work of feeding the freezer.
  • Date everything. To manage frozen foods efficiently, you need to know whether they are fresh. Remember to always write a date on every package added to the freezer. Make sure that you rotate foodstuffs so that new foods go behind older packages.
  • Organize a large freezer by category. Keep all casseroles in one area; frozen beef roasts and steaks in another part of the freezer. Frozen chicken and turkey should live in the bottom basket of the freezer where they are easy to grab.
  • Use freezer baskets. Flat-bottomed baskets support floppy freezer bags and organize freezer contents. Place all frozen vegetables in one basket, upended loaves of sandwich bread in another. Specialty freezer organizers are designed to fit together, and won't crack in cold temperatures; they're a good option for chest freezers.
  • Think square. When freezing homemade soups or stews, use square or rectangular plastic freezer containers to store them in rather than round ones. Squared-off containers fit together neatly and take up considerably less space than cylindrical shapes.
  • Rotate for freshness. When adding new foods to the freezer, store them behind existing products and use the oldest foods first.

Stop clutter in the freezer

Gather your tools: a double-lined trash can for rejected foods, ice chests to hold to declutter survivors, a sink of hot soapy water, baking soda and cleaning cloths.

Step 1: Sort. Turn off the freezer, and unplug it from the wall. Start at the top, and remove each parcel of food. One by one, decide if the container stays or goes. The freezer declutter rule is simple: if it's sealed, labeled and fresh, it stays. If it's Mystery Meat of unknown age, freezer-burned or an open container, out it goes.

Step 2: Toss. Declutter all foods with torn or open packaging, freezer-burned meat or any chunk of food you can't identify and date. Run reusable containers holding the rejects under a hot stream of water to loosen the food-icicle from the carton. Pop the food into the double-lined trash can, and soak the container in the sink's sudsy water. Tuck any keepers into the holding area of ice chests.

Step 3: Clean and put away. When the freezer's empty, wipe it out with a taste of baking soda and water. Wipe dry with fresh cleaning cloths. If necessary, remove and wash shelves or organizer baskets in hot soapy water. Rinse thoroughly and dry before returning them to the freezer. Clean door storage units. Soak and rinse door racks, then dry before returning; wipe door compartments with baking soda paste, then dry. When the freezer is clean and dry, plug it in and turn it on for 15 minutes before replacing food.

Freezer inventory

When it comes to the freezer, out of sight is too frequently out of mind. Expensive frozen food goes to waste because no one remembers it's there to be eaten.

Solution: a freezer inventory. Post the inventory on the outside of the freezer door, and check it regularly when you make menu plans. Remember: The best bargain at the supermarket is the food you've already bought and paid for.

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