condiments crowded into a fridge door shelf

Ask the organizer: A bad smell in the fridge

Dear Joyful Surroundings,

There’s an odor in my fridge. I’ve got a new box of baking soda in there but it doesn’t seem to be working. 

Thanks for listening,

M, Colorado

Dear M,

We have huge fridges these days, nothing like the small, sleek models of my youth a hundred years ago in England, when most people shopped daily for fruits and vegetables. Our family of six had a fridge not much bigger than one you’d find in a hotel room. Nowadays, we shop for the week or longer and we keep our fridges completely full.

It gets crowded in there and finding the source of a bad smell can take some detective work. The first strategy to try is to clean the fridge and the way to do that without getting completely overwhelmed is to take it slowly.

Open the fridge door and look at the drawers on the inside of the fridge door first. There are probably five or six but just deal with them one at a time.

Starting with the top drawer, take everything in that drawer out and set it all on the counter. Reach in and give the shelf a wipe with a damp, soapy cloth and then dry it. Maybe there’s something sticky or slimy or otherwise smelly lurking on the bottom of that shelf. Gently clean it off and then dry the shelf.

Before you put everything back on your cleaned shelf, look at the things you took out and see if any of them could be what’s making fridge smell bad.

  • Milk or creamer that’s seen better days.?
  • Half an oozing tomato in a bag with a few of its rotten friends?
  • Is there a loose cap on anything that could be releasing odors?
  • Is there mold growing on a block of cheese or an old half used can of beans?

Put all those things in the trash. It’s not wasteful to throw away food if the food’s bad.

Now go through the pile on the counter looking for anything that doesn’t earn its keep. If a jar has less than one-eighth of barbecue sauce in it and you use BBQ sauce once a year, toss that out and add BBQ sauce to your list. If your bulk bottle of malt vinegar is hogging space and you last used it for a recipe two years ago, let it go. It was a good deal but it’s taking up space you need for the things you use often.

Group the things that are now left into two piles. One, things you use frequently. Two, the things you use often enough to keep but don’t need weekly. Leave both piles on the counter and clear space to sort the next shelf.

Move on to shelf number two. Take everything off, set it all on the counter and wipe down the fridge door shelf. Look for moldy, stinky things that can be tossed out. Look for those ends of bottles that you can let go. Add what’s left to your two piles, often used and rarely used.

Carry on down the fridge door, taking things out one shelf at a time, wiping down and drying the emptied shelf and then carefully assessing what you took out. You’re looking for anything that smells off, anything you don’t use, anything with mold growing inside even if there’s a lid on it.

Eventually, you’ll have emptied, wiped and dried all the shelves in the fridge door and you’ll have a fairly decent sized pile of condiments and so on gracing your kitchen counter.

Take a moment to read this story from The Onion.

Return to the kitchen counter and look once more for anything you don’t like the taste of, anything you never use, anything that hasn’t earned precious space in your fridge door.

Start putting things back in the fridge door. Put the things you use most often in the drawer that’s most convenient for your height. You could put all the breakfast things together, all the stir fry sauces together, however you want to arrange it. You could also just put everything back where it fits, whichever is least overwhelming to you. Shut the fridge door and take another break.

When you come back, go shelf by shelf for the inside of the fridge in exactly the same way. Take everything off one fridge shelf and put it all out on the counter. Clean the shelf with a soapy damp cloth, making sure to peer in and see what’s fallen down the back of the fridge.

You may decide to designate certain shelves for produce, for meat, for snacks. Those categories are going to be dependent on what you keep in your fridge.  Maybe you want all the dairy together, maybe you’re happy spreading it out with the creamer on a shelf and the butter in a drawer.  Put things you use often nearer to you, let things you use rarely be more difficult to find. Nothing smelly, moldy, out of date gets a pass to get back in your clean fridge. Nothing you don’t like, nothing you never use.

Once your fridge has been cleaned and cleared, if the odor remains then it’s time to check the fridge is cool enough. The FDA says it’s important to keep the temperature at 40 degrees or less. If things are still stinky in there, turn to Google. A quick search turned up this thorough guide from wiki-How.

Once you’ve sorted out the fridge problem, you may feel inspired to clear out your freezer too. Take it slowly, with exactly the same steps. One area at a time, wipe down the shelving and dry it. Assess everything with a critical eye. Freezers are helpful but they’re not magical. Nothing lasts forever and if you can’t recognize the meat for freezer burn, it’s not going to taste good or have many nutrients left.

READ MORE >>> How to declutter and organize

Do you have an organizing question you’d like answered? Send it to me ( and I’ll answer your question in a future Ask the Organizer blog post.

by Lucy Kelly


  1. It appears that I am the only one in my household who can sense a bad smell, regardless where it’s coming from. I constantly toss out old or molded food from the refrigerator because it’s the healthiest thing to do. I don’t like taking any chances and I do pay attention to expiration dates.
    I do like how you described the step-by-step approach to pinpoint where a curious odor may be coming from and how to clean the refrigerator. It’s really smart and helpful. As a routine, whenever I’m in the refrigerator, if I see a spill or something doesn’t look quite right, I wipe it and if necessary, out it goes.

  2. In our house, I’ve knick-named my husband, “the nose.” You’re heard of super tasters? Those are individuals with extra tastebuds. Well, my husband is a super smeller. He is particularly sensitive to smells, especially bad ones and is great at finding them. I don’t like bad smells and in fact, love to be surrounded by ones that make me happy- natural smells (like fresh lemons) or scented candles.

    One day, Steve walks into our kitchen and asks me, “Do you smell that?” I did not. Several more days go by. He’s now frantically looking for the offending smell. I still don’t smell it. At this point, I now begin smelling something not so good. Finally he finds it. It was an “overdue” garlic clove. We were both happy to find it and let it go.

    Most days, things smell pretty good around here. 🙂

  3. It struck me that, indeed, some people need to hear, “It’s not wasteful to throw away food if the food’s bad.” Thanks for giving your readers permission, Lucy!

  4. I love this question, and the way you answered it. I’ve had this happen too, and it is always so perplexing to find the culprit. A couple of times I’ve discovered it was simply a container with an odiferous content that wasn’t completely closed (that garlic!) Love that you also suggest taking a break. You can do so many projects in small bites, which is great if you are a person who never seems to get that big chunk of time!