Ajax Giwa, a college student in Chicago, has lived with their four roommates for two years. Though, for the most part, the five of them get along pretty well, the shared refrigerator remains a source of angst.
Five roommates. One fridge. Much drama.
Organizational experts and real roomies share strategies for dealing with leftovers, refrigerator cleanouts and who ate what
Eventually, one roommate offered to help Giwa conquer a full clean-out. “My roommate and I threw out a whole trash bag of rotting food and takeout containers and reorganized the whole thing,” says Giwa.
The rest of the household wasn’t exactly grateful: “The next day, one roommate really was in the group chat saying ‘I noticed the fridge got cleaned out. Did you guys throw out my cheese and deli meat?’ Mind you, there are six more packs of cheese in the fridge, and deli meat. We are on a cheese freeze in our house.”
Anyone who’s lived with roommates knows Giwa’s plight isn’t terribly unique. The refrigerator, among the most scarce — and valuable — real estate in a crowded house, is notoriously ripe for drama. “Sharing is often a tricky business, especially when people are operating with different budgets, values, personal preferences or organizing styles,” says Shira Gill, a professional organizer in Northern California. Still, she and other experts say there are some simple ways to mitigate the conflict.
In a case like Giwa’s, Cynthia Kienzle, founder of The Clutter Whisperer in New York City, recommends posting a list of communal items directly on the fridge that should be replenished out of a group budget. Keeping tabs on what’s already in stock should help reduce stress and unnecessary spending on duplicates.
Another way to maximize space, says Gill, is by removing products from bulky packaging and transferring them to reusable, Ziploc-style bags. She also suggests creating clear boundaries so each roommate is responsible for their own section of the refrigerator. “Make the fridge as symmetrical as possible by adjusting shelves and storing beverages and condiments in the doors,” she says. “You can use existing drawers or add clear, labeled bins to give each roommate their own designated storage space.”
Sisters Hannah and Sarah Barnett, who live together (mostly in harmony) in Atlanta, echo the effectiveness of labels at preventing confusion and fights, especially when it comes to leftovers. You can use them to put your name on the things that belong to you, of course, but also to identify the date that an item first entered the refrigerator. Hannah, a creative strategist, recalls one incident where her past roommate forgot about a container of beans: “I started to open it and I thought I was going to faint.”
“People just don’t understand that when you put stuff in the fridge, it’s not going to organize itself,” says Sarah, an interior designer. “Get a label machine. They’re novel, fun and super satisfying.” (If a label maker feels like overkill, Kienzle says plain-old masking tape will usually get the job done.)
Even the most meticulous labeling, however, will only go so far if you and your roommates aren’t communicating well, says Gill. “You get to decide how you show up, act and react in any situation,” she says. “Do your best to banish the blame game [and] seek creative compromises.” Terri Albert, founder of The Chicago Organizer, adds that it’s also key for roommates to establish rules about “borrowing” food early on.
Some disagreements are silly. For instance, Isabella Ballew and Will Griffin, a couple who live together in Brooklyn, have an ongoing squabble over jam. “Our fridge is just smallish and we can’t be buying jams willy-nilly and we have completely different tastes,” says Ballew. “He doesn’t like raspberries, which is insane. It will never be resolved.”
Other disputes are more serious. For Charlie Miller, a graduate student in Chicago, poor communication once led to three days of silence. Miller and his roommate at the time shared grocery purchases, but Miller eventually realized his roommate regularly wanted to buy more food than he did. So Miller confronted the roomie about overspending on items that would often end up in the trash, explaining that he no longer wanted to contribute to those unnecessary bills.
It didn’t go well: Miller remembers that “the whole apartment was so weighted with this feeling of betrayal towards me that I barely left my room. It was super-awkward and confusing.”
After an honest conversation (and apologies on both sides), they worked out clearer rules around the shared food and who was responsible for what. “[We] realized in the end that whatever our grocery wars were about wasn’t as important as our friendship and the health of our household dynamic,” says Miller, “so we learned to give each other more grace when it came to that kind of thing.”
One issue that isn’t up for debate? Food safety. Aaron Gifford, a cook living in New Orleans, remembers a nightmare scenario when they shared a fridge with 10 roommates. Though they had two refrigerators, clearing out old food frequently became a source of conflict. For everyone’s protection, Gifford took charge when they discovered long-expired spinach.
“I was about to put it into our compost but one of my roommates at the time cried out, ‘No! Don’t do that, we can still use it. Ugh, Americans are so wasteful,’” Gifford recalls. “The bag of spinach was so spoiled that it had liquid at the bottom. I wound up throwing it in the compost for fear of all of us getting food poisoning from some vegetarian soup with rotten spinach in it. We didn’t speak much after that.”
Maxwell Rabb is a writer, film critic and poet in Chicago.
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