“The fridge is not designed with human behavior in mind,” she said. “The human mind is limited in terms of capacity, and one limitation is ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ So if I don’t see something, I’m going to forget, and this leads to food waste.”
Zhao has a simple solution: feng shui your fridge. As she explained in a TED Talk this year, that means redirecting the flow of your attention by rearranging your food so that the most perishable items are most visible. It may seem like a little thing, she said, but “the behavioral science evidence shows some of the smallest changes lead to the biggest impacts.”
The United States throws out about a third of the food it produces, according to ReFED, a nonprofit focused on reducing food waste. As the prices of groceries rise, food waste is an increasingly costly drain on American households.
But it’s also a big burden on the environment: Food waste contributes 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, making it more than twice as damaging to the climate as the airline industry.
Zhao suggests turning the standard refrigerator organization system on its head: Put your perishables in the doors and hide your most durable foods — such as ketchup, mayo and mustard bottles — in the drawers.
“Whenever I open the fridge, I see the fruits, vegetables and perishables, and I catch them before they go bad,” she said. “It’s a good visual reminder: Oh, hey, you’ve got to eat those carrots or you’ve got to eat that lettuce.”
Since Zhao began spreading the gospel of fridge feng shui, she says she’s gotten pushback from people who worry their greens will wilt faster in the door, away from the cool, protective embrace of the crisper drawer. But she says it’s a trade-off between extending the life of your perishable items or boosting the chances that you’ll remember to eat them.
“They do wilt a little bit [in the door], but it’s better than rotting,” she said. “If you leave them in the drawer, you probably won’t see them again until they rot.”
Besides, she says, she’s started storing her greens in sealed containers that will keep them as fresh — and free from ripening ethylene gases — as the crisper drawer would.
The other organizing principle Zhao suggests is “first in, first out,” a storage strategy that companies and warehouses use to manage their inventory more efficiently.
She keeps all the oldest items in her fridge front and center rather than allowing them to be gradually shoved into forgotten and rancid corners at the back of the shelf. Instead, the newest food goes straight to the back and slowly works its way forward as she eats the older items first.
It’s especially important to foreground raw meat, produce and dairy that are getting older, because in many cases they will only last a few days in the refrigerator. Durable items such as beverages and condiments can stay on the periphery a little longer, since they have longer shelf lives.
This tactic has the added benefit of preventing a moldy menagerie of forgotten foods from collecting in the back of shelves or the bottom of drawers.