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Is your icebox uncool?

Learn the necessary steps for keeping your food fresh.
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Take a look inside your fridge and I do mean a really good look. It’s probably time you went through the shelves and found those “hidden” and out-of-date foods and threw them away. Most of us think that just because our refrigerators and freezers are cold that foods can and will last forever — think again! On NBC’s “Today” show, Los Angeles Times syndicated columnist and “Today” show contributor Phil Lempert gives helpful hints on how to keep what you have in your fridge safe.


CHECK EXPIRATION DATES carefully and don’t assume that just because your refrigerator seems cool that the products will last beyond the date. In fact what many of us forget is that most refrigerated and frozen products have many “uncool” opportunities from food processing facilities to our homes.

Be sure to always shop for perishables last — and get them back under refrigeration as quickly as possible. A quart of milk that is out of refrigeration for two hours can shorten the shelf life by a day or two.

Remember that you can’t see, smell or taste bacteria until it’s too late and can cause serious food illnesses.

There is a good reason that refrigerators are built and designed the way they are. Most of us ignore that — we hardly ever read the booklet that comes with it.

The most important “accessory” is a refrigerator thermometer. Every supermarket sells them and for about $2 it can be the best investment you can make. Get one for both your refrigerated compartment and your freezer. Put the thermometer in the middle of the unit, not on the door and not way in the back. The refrigerator temperature should be around 38 degrees and never over 40 degrees. Freezers should be at zero. Check it at least once a week.

Proper air circulation is critical for proper refrigeration. Look carefully to see where the air vents are and don’t block them. Think back to the last time you purchased chopped meat in the supermarket — the outside of the package was bright red, but the inside was brown. That happened because the inside didn’t get properly cooled or the temperature inside wasn’t maintained at 40 degrees or lower. The same thing happens in your refrigerator!

Don’t jam pack the refrigerator as you do your pantry. Be sure there are spaces between products. Not only will you help your compressor work better; you will probably find it easier to find things.

Next to my refrigerator is a Sharpie — one of those markers that will write on anything! Before I put my groceries away after shopping, I write the expiration date in BIG letters — where I can easily see them. Your refrigerator can only do so much to keep foods fresh — you’ve got to take responsibility and be sure to consume foods in their prime.

Most of the volume of products in your refrigerator is stored on the shelves. Use this area for the products that are most sensitive to temperature changes. Crispers are for fruits and veggies — and be sure to always place a clean absorbent paper towel on the bottom. Not only will it make clean up easier, but it will also absorb any excess moisture and help keep the produce fresh. Change the towel once a week.

The door shelves are the most convenient, but also the area that is the warmest. Be sure not to put highly perishable foods there. It’s designed for salad dressings, beverages [not milk], and condiments. Every time you open the door, these products’ temperatures immediately change as the kitchen’s air hits them. Be sure to check these products often and carefully, as they are likely to spoil the fastest.

And you know that egg holder that came with your refrigerator? Throw it away! Eggs should always be kept on a main shelf and in their original containers — they need to breathe — that’s why there is a little “air cell” below each egg as well as air holes in the container.

Many newer-model refrigerators also have “specially designed” compartments for cheese or meats. While it might seem obvious, do use them for the products they are designed for. The air circulation and temperature settings are perfect for those products.

Keep your refrigerator clean — and I do not mean a once-a-year spring clean up. At least once every season, empty your refrigerator and give it a thorough cleaning. Although the temperature is below 40 degrees, some bacteria can still survive and create food safety problems.

Take the shelves out and wash both sides thoroughly with hot soapy water. Many refrigerators now come with spill proof shelves — a little ridge that captures and holds spills. That is a perfect place for bacteria to grow. Make sure that you scour that little ridge thoroughly once a week and immediately after every spill.

A cool, clean refrigerator can help you get the most value, freshness, taste, and nutrition out of all your foods.

Companies are finally coming to our aid and making our job easier.

Tupperware has just introduced a new line of product designed specifically to use in the refrigerator: FridgeSmart. These are designed to keep fruits and vegetables fresher longer by regulating the correct amount of air. Produce actually “breathes” after it is picked and depending on the item and how its stored makes all the difference on how long it will last. These containers have two vents, which can be opened or closed independently. You can also follow the same rules by using plastic bags and keeping them closed, poking a hole or two in them, or leaving them open.

Produce like celery, carrots, cucumbers, and grapes are “low” respiratory and don’t require air.

Beans, cauliflower, lettuce and citrus are medium.

Broccoli, spinach, Brussels sprouts and artichokes need the highest.

Major manufactures are also doing their part in bringing smart technologies to our kitchen. GE’s new Artica refrigerator/freezer was developed at the cost of nearly a billion dollars. It is based on the concept of custom cooling — with an extensive and unique temperature management system, which uses a multi-flow air tower and multiple electronic sensors.

This unit has a special compartment “express chill” that not only cools beverages quickly but is perfect for highly perishable products right from shopping or restaurant leftovers.

Express Thaw is a feature that will prevent lots of potential food safety problems. Although we know we shouldn’t thaw products on our counters — many of us still do as it just takes too long on the shelf of a normal refrigerator. For example, a one and a half pound package of ground beef would take 32 hours to defrost — in this only eight.

New refrigerators are being developed that can keep track of inventory and ordering, separate temperature controls for each internal area, and even connects to your computer and places reorders automatically. But, no one has figured out one that can clean itself! By the way, when is the last time you cleaned behind the handle?

Phil Lempert, the Supermarket Guru®, analyzes the food marketing industry to keep consumers up-to-date about cutting-edge marketing trends. He is a regular “Today” show contributor, columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and host of Shopping Smart of the WOR Radio Network. For more food and health information, you can check out Phil’s Web site at: