The break room refrigerator can be the most inconvenient convenience in the office. Not only can it get smelly and sticky, but it can also be a source of contention when coworkers don’t always remember the golden rules of sharing in a communal space. Whether you’re the person who packs in leftovers and conveniently forgets about them, the person who brings in all the ingredients to prepare a gourmet one-person lunch each day, or the person who just sneaks a drop of milk for their coffee, with a few simple guidelines, the office fridge can go back to being just another item in the office that makes life easier for everyone.
Organize the fridge efficiently
The secret to a happy fridge is organization. Here are some simple tips to keep things tidy and conflict-free while they chill.
- Keep a roll of masking tape and a marker near the refrigerator door so coworkers can put their name on their items or label it as “fair game.”
- Purchase small plastic baskets and assign one to each person using the fridge with a name tag to eliminate confusion and discourage yogurt-poaching.
- Never put cardboard leftover containers directly in the fridge. Transfer all leftovers from cardboard takeout boxes and bulky bags to airtight, spill-proof containers to save space, minimize smell, and keep food fresher for longer.
- Keep all communal items like half and half, butter, and condiments in an area labeled “communal.” This could be on the refrigerator door or in a plastic basket labeled “communal.”
Set a fridge cleaning policy that works for everyone
When everyone uses the fridge, everyone should be responsible for its maintenance.
- A fair use policy should include all employees from the higher level staff to the most entry level.
- With one person leading the charge, create a weekly cleaning schedule and post it on the refrigerator and in everyone’s digital calendar.
- Create a system where every week a different team of 2 employees cleans and empties out the fridge together. This will keep maintenance fair and regular. In addition, being responsible for cleaning other people’s messes will help everyone be more conscious of their own use of communal spaces in the future.
Clean the office refrigerator properly
Follow these steps to clean the fridge safely:
- Fill the sink with warm, soapy water. Use only food-safe cleaning products like regular dish soap. Never use detergent, bleach, or harsh cleaning products to avoid food contamination.
- Remove all food, drinks, condiments, unidentifiable containers, science projects, and flowers from the refrigerator.
- Once the refrigerator is completely empty, remove all shelves and drawers and place them in the soapy water to soak. If the sink isn’t big enough, wash them in batches.
- Take a clean non-scratch kitchen sponge, and using only warm, soapy water, wipe down the inside surfaces of the refrigerator.
- To remove any stubborn residue, create a paste of baking soda and water and gently scrub the area with a sponge in a circular motion.
- Wipe down the inside of the refrigerator with a paper towel.
- Wash and dry the drawers and shelves in the sink.
- Before putting anything back into the refrigerator, use a hand-vacuum to suck up the crumbs and random debris that collects in the corners and drawers. (Keeping a hand-held vacuum just for kitchen surfaces will make cleaning the entire kitchen easier and more sanitary than using a vacuum that is also used on the floor.)
- Use an ordinary floor vacuum to clean the refrigerator coils (located on the floor in the front of the fridge or on the back) to reduce energy drain and help the fridge run more efficiently.
- Replace the drawers and shelves in their proper places.
- Place an open container of baking soda or ground coffee in the back of the fridge to reduce food odors.
- Wipe down all condiments such as jam, dressing, mustard, and anything else that feels sticky before putting them back into the refrigerator.
- Replace only items that are properly labeled and not expired, and discard or leave out the rest to be claimed.
Know whether to keep it or toss it
Clean out your office refrigerator once a week, preferably on a Friday after lunch. Set up an automatic reminder that goes out to your team every week at lunchtime so they have time to label anything that shouldn’t be thrown out or to claim their personal storage containers before they become communal. Each week, take everything out of the fridge before cleaning it. Then examine the contents and make the call whether to keep or toss items before putting them back in the fridge.
- Throw out all leftovers in disposable containers.
- Remove all personal storage containers and stack them in an agreed upon location such as the kitchen counter. Anything not claimed is subject to being put out with the trash.
- Check all expiration dates and discard anything that is expired.
- Toss all rotting or moldy produce. Leave fruits and vegetables of questionable freshness out on the counter with a “last chance!” sign. Anything that isn’t taken that day may be discarded or thrown into a blender for an afternoon smoothie.
- Once the refrigerator is clean, put back only foods that will not expire any time soon, like condiments, salad dressing, peanut butter, or frozen food.
Practice good fridge etiquette
Signs may be passive-aggressive, but they work. Post a sign near the refrigerator for a gentle reminder of common-sense practices. Here are some ideas for rules to get you started, but feel free to add your own.
- Please be mindful that this is a shared refrigerator.
- Do not take food and drinks that are not yours.
- Label all items you don’t intend to share.
- Clean up spills as soon as they happen.
- Store food and drinks in leak-proof containers.
- Never leave open containers in the refrigerator.
- Don’t hog the fridge — leave room for others.
- Make sure you shut the fridge and freezer door firmly.
- Please do not adjust the temperature settings.