Hot and cold areas of the refrigerator are the key to successful meal prep

OAlthough it’s a pretty universal habit to keep your condiments in the fridge door and vegetables in the crisper drawer, the rest of the fridge can be free for everyone. Should you organize everything by color, like in the inspirational fridge photo you just double-tapped on Instagram? Put your fruits in the foreground so you don’t forget to eat them? Should your leftovers go in the front or back of the fridge?

As a professional fridge organizer, meal prep, and author of the new book The love of the fridge ($18), these are questions Kristen Hong often asks herself. She’s a firm believer that having a well-organized fridge is essential for eating nutrient-dense meals regularly, and that doubles if you’re busy or cooking for the whole house. But something, she says, that many people don’t even think about when it comes to setting up their fridge is the hot and cold areas of the fridge. Knowing these areas, she says, is key to meal prep success.

What are even the hot and cold areas of the refrigerator?

Simply put, hot and cold zones are areas inside the refrigerator that are slightly warmer or cooler than the overall temperature. In general, your refrigerator should be at 40°F or lower. But there are areas in the refrigerator that will be above or below, depending on the airflow of the system.

Hong says identifying the hot and cold areas of your fridge depends on the type of fridge you have. “Because people have different types of refrigerators, it’s very difficult to give general advice that can apply to everyone,” she says. That being said, Hong says most people have one of three types of fridges: basic freezer fridges (where the freezer is on top of the fridge and cool air is pushed along the back wall of the refrigerator compartment), side-mounted refrigerators, side-by-side refrigerators (with a freezer on one side and the refrigerator on the other, with side-to-side airflow) and French-door models (which have a clearance of more focused airflow).

According to Hong, French door models have a more even temperature throughout, so they don’t often have hot and cold zones (or at least not many of those to really worry about). But if you have one of the other two types of refrigerators, it’s time to pay attention. “The cold areas of top-freezer refrigerators tend to be at the very back of the refrigerator. Also, the top shelf is the coldest and the bottom shelves are the warmest,” Hong explains. Side-by-side fridges, she says, tend to be coldest in the middle and directly above the crisper drawers, with the top shelf being the warmest. For most refrigerators, the crisper drawers have their own separate air circulation system or temperature controls, making it a cooler zone with more humidity to keep produce fresh.

Besides the type of refrigerator, there are other factors you need to think about. For example, Hong says that if you live in a hot or humid place, it will have a greater impact on the items in the front of the refrigerator than someone who lives in a more temperate place, because every time as you open the refrigerator door, a blast of warm air float inside.

Okay, now that you know how to identify hot and cold areas in your fridge, let’s see why it’s important and essential for meal prep.

Why Knowing Your Fridge’s Hot and Cold Zones Is Key to Meal Prep Success

The goal of meal prep is to have enough food ready to heat and eat for several days. Hong says she cooks the meals herself for seven to nine days. “Understanding where your hot and cold zones are is critical because the colder the temperature you store something at, the longer it will last,” Hong says. For this reason, she says you should put the foods you want to eat in the front of the fridge first because they will spoil before the foods in the back.

Let’s say you cooked sweet potatoes and rice to eat earlier in the week and you also made turkey meatballs to eat at the end of the week. Heeding Hong’s advice, you’ll want to store your meatballs in the coldest part of the fridge, in the back and either on the top shelf (if you have a fridge with a freezer) or on the middle shelf (if you have a side-by-side fridge), as the cold temperature will help them last longer than a warm area.

Besides the food you’ve already prepared, Hong says it’s important to consider hot and cold areas when knowing where to store fresh produce as well. In her book, she has an entire section dedicated to this because different fruits and vegetables have different temperature requirements, including some that shouldn’t be kept in the refrigerator at all. But a general tip to keep in mind is that greens need moisture to stay fresh for as long as possible, so they should be stored in a container in a cool area, like the crisper. “I would also store the berries in a cold area because they also need humidity,” says Hong.

As you’ve probably noticed, the refrigerator door is a hot zone for most refrigerators. That’s why it makes sense to store condiments there; they are made to last a long time. “You can also store bottled drinks, bread, pita breads or other foods that could also be stored in the pantry,” Hong says, adding that moving something from the pantry to the refrigerator door will give it a longer shelf life. The last major refrigerator item Hong says to watch out for is anything that contains dairy. “Since dairy products spoil more easily than other types of items, you want to store them in a cold area…do not the door,” she said.

To recap our lesson on refrigerator organization 101, warm areas are ideal for storing condiments, foods that might survive in the pantry, and prepared meals that you plan to eat relatively soon. Save your cold zones for dairy products, products that require moisture, and prepared foods that you don’t plan to eat right away.

When you keep these tips in mind, not only will it help you stay organized and reduce the time spent figuring out what to eat, but it will also reduce food waste. It could be so game-changing that you’ll be inspired to post your own fridge shelf on Instagram.

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