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Stocked to Save Time, Energy


The big trick to packing a refrigerator is to stash the food in such a way that you can get in and out fairly quickly. This reduces wasted time and energy consumption and the hazards of deciding that the leftover pizza looks better than the stalk of celery you had planned to eat.

Of equal concern is how to store food so it will not come back to bite you, such as when you finally open the vegetable crisper in August and realize, yes, you had bought broccoli in February.

Packing a refrigerator is an art form that can tell a lot about one's psyche. Is it crammed with dabs of food you couldn't part with because your mother told you never to waste food? Is separation anxiety a factor when deciding whether to toss that outdated yogurt? Is sinful candy hidden in the righteous vegetable bin? Is it so neat in there that condiments are alphabetized--mayo after ketchup but before mustard?

Personality issues aside, you can consider your refrigerator well-packed if it keeps cold what needs to be kept cold, doesn't waste energy and is easy to find things in.

Once those essentials have been taken care of, little else matters--except maybe wiping up the spills now and then.

Refrigerator experts seem to agree that the "two-thirds full" rule works best when striving for optimum energy efficiency. Whether a fridge is packed two-thirds full with bunches of watercress or bowls of chocolate pudding is a strictly personal choice.

"It's just as important not to overfill a refrigerator as it is not to under-fill one," said Alane Mackay, a spokeswoman for the Assn. of Home Appliance Manufacturers. "It's important to be aware of your shopping habits. If you shop two or three times a week versus once a week, it's going to be pretty easy to keep your refrigerator two-thirds full."

As with the refrigerator, the freezer should be kept two-thirds full. If your freezer or refrigerator is typically void of food, fill milk jugs or other containers with water and keep them in the refrigerator and freezer space. (However, if you're a real fiend for dining out or only use your fridge for diet soda and ice cubes, consider buying a smaller appliance.)

Most people can root through their fridge blindfolded and find what they need with no sash twisting. There is a small faction, however, that uses the refrigerator as a form of light therapy, gazing earnestly into the appliance without much result.

The main rule is to stock the items you use least in the rear of the refrigerator or freezer and pack the more frequently used items in the front, said Kevin Kelley, a spokesman for Southern California Edison. This cuts down on hunting for things, he said.

Consider, though, that the coldest part of most refrigerators and freezers is in the back, and the warmest part is in the front, where the door is constantly being opened and shut. If you are fond of ice cold soda pop, but not ice cold baking soda, a compromise may have to be struck.

"It's also important to stack things at least somewhat to where they are visible so you don't have to move them around to see what's behind them," Kelley said. "The more the refrigerator door is closed, the better."

More basic tenets culled from cookbooks, home economists and appliance manufacturers on how to have a good relationship between food, fridge and user:

-Make sure your refrigerator stays at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or less.

-Fresh poultry or fish can last in its original wrap only a couple of days and fresh meat only about five days. Wrapping meat in foil, plastic wrap or airtight containers or bags and freezing it immediately after purchase helps longevity.

-Always keep uncooked meat, fish and poultry in the coldest part of the refrigerator.

-Keep fresh fruits and veggies in the crisper or loosely covered in a bag or under wrap. Except for greens, do not wash before storing.

-Most leftovers can keep three to four days if kept tightly covered in the refrigerator.

-Avoid overcrowding refrigerator shelves. This reduces airflow and results in uneven cooling.

-Let hot dishes cool slightly before putting them in the refrigerator or freezer.

-Cover liquids and wipe moisture from the outside of containers before placing them in the refrigerator.

-Keep freezer at 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

-Load the freezer with no more than three pounds of food per cubic foot of freezer space in a 24-hour period. Adding too much warm food overloads the freezer and slows the rate of freezing.

-For freezer storage of one month or more, use moisture-proof materials of specially coated or laminated papers. It varies how long properly wrapped and frozen foods hold their full flavor and nutrients. If a food is frozen longer than usual, it is still safe to eat, but the flavor may have faded.

-If you are not blessed with a frost-free freezer, defrost your freezer at least once a year. Not only is whacking away at big chunks of ice good for the soul, but it helps ensure ice crystals won't sneak into your food and lessen their quality.

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