There is a fair chance that if you're reading this post, your fridge—the most-used and largest appliance in your house—is screwing you. The refrigerator is as potent a symbol of American consumerist culture as you're likely to find, which is to say, it only makes sense if you don't really look at it very hard. It is, for many people, a waste of space, a waste of money, a drain on the environment, and an enabler of obesity.
The size of the average American fridge is ever expanding: Including all the old refrigerators still in service, the average volume is somewhere around 22 cubic feet, but take a look at the best-selling fridges at Sears or Walmart and you'll see that few new ones dip below 26. Many break the 30-cubic-foot mark.
Most people don't need these comically large, oversized novelty fridges. In Europe, where people also cook and eat food, the average refrigerator is around 10 cubic feet, less half the size of the American jumbo product.
In terms of energy usage, the fridge is probably your single biggest energy drain short of your car—not that it uses the most power per minute (that would be the oven or air conditioner), but it, unlike other appliances, is on 24 hours a day.
If your fridge was made before standards changed in 2001, as mine was, it's using somewhere in the vicinity of 1,000 to 1,750 kilowatt-hours per year (kWh/year). Your average laptop uses about 72 kWh/year, and newer, better laptops like the MacBook Air use around 25 kWh/year. That means your non-new fridge uses up to 70 times as much energy your laptop. According to the EPA, using that much electricity is the equivalent of burning up to 50 gallons of gasoline per year.
Aside from the fact that this costs a lot of money, we, you know, obviously need to be using less electricity? I can't believe I'm typing this. I refuse to believe that anyone is going to argue that it's not good to conserve electricity, which in this country still comes largely from burning fossil fuels, so, OK, next point.
A full-sized fridge made in the 1990s is costing you, roughly, somewhere between $150 and $200 a year. A new, Energy Star fridge made in the past few years is probably around half that. But if you go smaller—not mini-fridge, dorm-fridge small, but European small—you can cut that even more, down to about $50-60 per year. Plus! A new top of the line, typically jumbo fridge will cost you a couple thousand dollars, while a smaller fridge, even a super fancy one, is unlikely to break the $1,500 mark.
The cost thing is pretty obvious; smaller is almost always cheaper than bigger. BUT. It gets more complex! The idea is: Shop more often, for less food, and everything will be better.
Bigger fridges encourage unhealthy eating habits. Brian Wansink, a professor of nutritional science and consumer behavior at Cornell and the former executive director of the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, did a study of warehouse club shoppers that showed that families that have more food in the house eat more food. If your freezer is large enough to house the family SUV and is full of ice cream because you bought it in bulk on a deal, you're going to eat more of that ice cream than if you'd just bought a single carton for your sensibly-sized freezer.
Even worse: a report from the National Resources Defense Council estimates that the average American throws out about 25 percent of food and beverages purchased. That's going to be hundreds of dollars a year for a single person, and thousands for a family of four. A major culprit is over-buying, and a major reason we over-buy is because we can over-store. Shop more often, a few times a week or even near-daily, and the only things in your fridge should be stuff you plan to eat immediately and maybe a few jars of preserves and condiments and sauces.
This will be kind of a pain for some people! But taking an extra half an hour on your way home from work a couple times a week will save you money and energy, and give you tastier, healthier food. And remember, these trips will be quicker, because you're not buying all that much.
And there are plenty of things in the refrigerator that don't need to be kept there. Hot sauce should never go in the fridge. Soy sauce, mustard, vinegars, most oils, honey, maple syrup: only after literally months of room temperature storage will you taste a difference compared to fridge storage, and they'll never go "bad." (Why are you eating six-month-old mustard anyway? Do you not like mustard?)
Also: The fridge and freezer are damp places, full of moisture and humidity, which can cause mold or oxidation in items that can't handle it. Produce like onions, potatoes, and garlic actively mold faster in the fridge than out of the fridge. Coffee's flavor gets all screwed up. Bread's texture gets all screwed up. Hell, even eggs don't need to be refrigerated, provided you're buying decent eggs, which, buy decent eggs. There, I just saved you a whole shelf.
And! A smaller fridge saves space. This isn't important for everyone, of course, but in cities, kitchens often get the short shrift, and every square or cubic foot helps. Some 10- or 15-cubic-foot fridges can even be kept under a counter. And these aren't, like, toy fridges. These are plenty big enough to hold your leftovers and your ice cream and your gallon of milk and your 12-pack of beer.
Unfortunately, kitchens are often set up to incorporate a fridge of a certain (large) size, with cutouts in the cabinetry and such. What will you do with the leftover awkward space? Try some wall-mounted shelves, or do what I do and dangle a couple of those tiered hanging baskets from the ceiling. Setting food directly on the fridge is not the best idea; the heat it gives off could spoil produce more quickly.
Still, if your biggest kitchen problem is that you have extra room you're not sure what to do with, you're doing pretty well!
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]