Whether you know it or not, your refrigerator is one of the hardest-working machines in your home. We’re lucky that modern refrigeration extends the life of our foods and is a major convenience in the kitchen. But lest you start taking advantage of this appliance, it’s important to know how to take care of it as well as how to keep your food from spoiling.

Temperature Basics

Your refrigerator should be kept no higher than 40 degrees Fahrenheit. If you have no idea what temperature yours is, purchase a fridge thermometer (like one of these). Even though your fridge is set for 40 degrees you’ll find that there are microclimates within. The coldest areas are generally in the back and on the top shelf. The warmest are the doors. The drawers tend to have higher humidity levels, perfect for your veggies that like to be misted at the grocery store. Your freezer should be kept at around 0 degrees and will also have slightly colder areas, depending upon the design of your freezer.

Best Places to Store Your Food

Even with today’s modern refrigerators, there are some good rules of thumb for where your food should be stored. When in doubt, always refer to this Food Safety guide.

Meats and Seafood: Raw meats, including seafood, should remain at consistent temperatures and in their original packages. Place them in the coldest regions and they should last about one to two days (for poultry or ground meats) to three to five days (for steaks). Follow these same rules when marinating meats and place a lipped plate underneath to contain drips.

Produce: Some produce prefers a humid environment, so place them in the drawers and set the humidity level high (if you have this feature). There are some fruits and vegetables that produce the gas ethylene, which can speed up the ripening process of other fruit and vegetables. Foods like apricots, avocados, kiwis and tomatoes are ethylene-producing foods. You’ll want to keep these foods separate from ethylene-sensitive foods like lettuce, apples or potatoes.

Milk, Eggs and Cheese: Milk and eggs should be stored in the coldest areas of the refrigerator, not the doors. Why those funny egg-shaped holders were ever designed for the fridge door is a mystery. Cheese can be kept in a slightly warmer area of the fridge and experts advise wrapping leftover cheese in parchment paper to avoid sweating.

Leftovers: Leftovers should be stored in clear containers so you can see what’s what. Place leftovers in the fridge as quickly as possible, preferably within 1-2 hours to prevent bacterial growth, and throw them away after four days.

Condiments: Condiments fit nicely in the doors of the fridge. Sadly, you really shouldn’t keep your condiments for as long as you might be keeping them. Ketchups and jams should be tossed after six months, pickles and olives after two months, barbecue sauce after four months. Most of these bottles and jars should have expiration dates; try writing the dates on the top of the bottle caps or lids to easily see what needs to be thrown out.

Cleaning Tips

Interior: Regularly cleaning your fridge and freezer is important, not only for looks but for your health. Doing a quick, 10 minute monthly clean is far better than a once-a-year major scrub. It shouldn’t take you too long to empty one shelf at a time (start up top), toss out old food, remove the shelves if you can and wash them in hot soapy water. Wipe down bottles and replace your baking soda disinfectant. Try not to use chemical cleaners when cleaning the interiors. You don’t want it to touch your foods. Make an easy, inexpensive non-toxic fridge cleaner with three cups of hot water, four tablespoons of white vinegar and ¼ teaspoon of Castile soap. Mix ingredients into a spray bottle and add several drops of essential oil like tea tree oil, lemon or orange for a great scent and added disinfectant. Be sure to clean the freezer as well. For fine crumbs or coffee grounds, try using your vacuum.

Exterior: Use that same spray to clean the doors, interior seals and door handles. For stainless steel, you can easily remove fingerprints using WD-40. Apply it to a dry cloth and use a second cloth to wipe of any excess. Your fridge has condenser coils that should be vacuumed and cleaned, especially if you have pets. It’s easy for dust and hair to get in the way and make your fridge work less efficiently. It’s best to unplug your unit first, and then use a vacuum or dry cloth to wipe them clean.

Got any fridge cleaning and organizing tips of your own? Tell us about them in the comments below.