Most boat refrigerators don't have any organizing tools built in -- no bins, shelves or anything. Here's how to customize it according to YOUR preferences!

Organizing the Refrigerator Step by Step

One of the very first articles I wrote for The Boat Galley was some general tips for organizing the refrigerator. But, frankly, that empty box is a little intimidating when you see it at first.  Unlike a home refrigerator, it’s usually just a box.  Either no dividers or just one between the refrigerator and freezer.  No meat keeper, produce drawers, wine bottle holder or even a shelf!

Add in the fact that the total space tends to be smaller than “house” refrigerators and no wonder that planning what you’ll do with the space gets stressful!

There’s actually no one correct way to organize the refrigerator — everyone has different preferences and priorities.  I can, however, give you some pointers and show you what I eventually came up with.

Organizing that big open box will ensure that you don’t have to keep the refrigerator open too long when you need something, that everything is kept at its proper temperature and that the space is fully utilized.

First, determine your priorities for the limited space in the refrigerator and freezer, asking yourself questions such as:

  • Do you need ice in your drinks, or will “cold drinks” suffice?  If your freezer is tiny, you may have to choose between ice and being able to freeze meat.
  • If you want plenty of cold drinks, you may have to use more canned fruit, vegetables and meat; if you want lots of fresh produce, there will be less room for other things.

Second, think about what needs to go where.  The coldest area in the refrigerator is at the bottom, with the area right under the chill plate the coldest – a good place for meat.  The bottom is also good for drinks, not only to keep them cold but also to keep the weight low and prevent them from falling onto fragile items.  The warmest area is at the top, away from the chill plate, making it perfect for things like lettuce.

If you want more “cold” or “not so cold” space than the natural progression of cold-to-warm areas offer, it’s easy to wall off sections without totally rebuilding the box.  Rigid foam sheets, sold at home improvement stores, are best to use but a double layer of corrugated cardboard will work too. Cut it to size to make a wall between the “cold” and “cool” sections, and duct tape it in place (don’t tape it too securely – you’ll want to remove the wall to defrost).  The side that contains the freezer compartment or chill plate will be quite cold (possibly freezing), and the other side much less so.  You can adjust the relative cold by making holes in the divider so that more cold air passes to the “cool” side – just don’t make too many all at once as it takes about a day for the relative temperatures to settle in.

Third, find bins and boxes that will fit in your planned areas to put your food into.    Grouping like items together – drinks, produce, cheese and so on – will ensure that foods stay in the proper temperature areas, that fragile foods will be protected and that you’ll be able to find things quickly.  Containers need to be sturdy to stand up to the motion of the boat and being moved about several times a day.  Covered containers work well for things like lettuce and tomatoes that you don’t want squished; otherwise, I like open tops for easy access, solid bottoms to contain the mess if anything leaks and ventilation holes in the sides.

Finally, try different arrangements with the bins empty, putting the food into coolers until you find an arrangement that works.  It may take some trial and error to come up with the best sizes and placement of bins and dividers, but in the long run pays huge dividends.  Foods will stay fresh longer and you’ll find what you need much more quickly, lessening both your frustration and the battery drain.

How Mine is Arranged

You may have different priorities, different things you’re keeping in the refrigerator and your refrigerator may be sized or shaped very differently.  But seeing how I do it may give you some ideas!

A chest freezer stands in for the refrigerator, allowing me to take photos showing the entire arrangement.  I start with the things that need to be kept coldest, putting them on the bottom directly under the freezer.  I’m thinking I’m going to have to wall off a section for a larger “really cold” area . . .

Most boat refrigerators don't have any organizing tools built in -- no bins, shelves or anything. Here's how to customize it according to YOUR preferences!

The bottom level has meat just below the freezer, drinks (canned and in bottles) on the lowest level, and space for extra produce and wine or sealant tubes (they last much longer in the refrigerator — read more).  I’ll use a Dremel tool to cut some ventilation holes in the bins that don’t have them.

Most boat refrigerators don't have any organizing tools built in -- no bins, shelves or anything. Here's how to customize it according to YOUR preferences!

A second produce bin for lettuce and other fragile items doesn’t completely cover the bin for canned drinks, so it’s still easy to grab them when needed. A divider makes an “almost freezer” for meat and cheese.

Most boat refrigerators don't have any organizing tools built in -- no bins, shelves or anything. Here's how to customize it according to YOUR preferences!

My final step is to add a few holes in the divider to let cold air pass into the “cool” section.  I’ll duct tape their edges, too, when I’m sure I don’t need to enlarge them.

Now, I just put the food back into the refrigerator from the coolers . . . and then enjoy a cold drink!

Most boat refrigerators don't have any organizing tools built in -- no bins, shelves or anything.  How to customize it for YOUR preferences!

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  • Hope Henry on Facebook
    Posted at 17 June 2013 Reply

    Clean it out every Friday…no fail.

    • Edd rauch
      Posted at 17 June 2013 Reply

      Better than Duct tape is what is called Gaffer’s tape. Duct tape tends to leave a mess behind if left in place too long. The Gaffer’s tape will not, and is almost as strong with a fabric backing. Also it is a good idea to fold under a small bit at one end of the tape so there is a tab to pull it up with.

    • Rebecca Kyes
      Posted at 12 April 2015 Reply

      A nice, but a bit more expensive divider material is corrogated plastic sheeting. It is sturdy, lightweight, clear lets some light through (helpful for dark corners) and it not an insect attractant. There are other sources for this, but a quick search brought me to Amazon:

  • Linda Pedersen
    Posted at 16 March 2014 Reply

    Very timely. Thanks!

  • Beth Allen McLeod
    Posted at 12 April 2015 Reply

    Thanks Carolyn! This is on my to do list this spring!

  • June Stein Kelly
    Posted at 12 April 2015 Reply

    If only I had a lovely square box. I have a cold plate on each end and it is VERY deep, I mean feet off the floor diving in deep, and narrow. Then I have a separate freezer with cold plates on each SIDE which makes it extremely narrow, a bit more than a foot which makes it impossible to get containers in and out. Ah the trials of the boat refrigerator and freezer! I get so frustrated. Thanks for the encouragement Carolyn.

    • Karen Stresau
      Posted at 12 January 2017 Reply

      I use mesh bags of different colors in my freezer because I also have a very deep and narrow freezer. The bags are oblong – about the circumference of a dinner plate and about 3 ft long. (I think they may have been for our snorkeling gear.) I have different colors for bread, veggies, etc. I also have mesh smaller bags that I keep near the top – on top of the bigger bags, for things like cold packs and my gel-filled silicone wine glasses. They work pretty well, much better than standing on a stool and placing the upper half of my body into the freezer to find something. They also don’t stick to the inside of the freezer.

  • Erin Jackson
    Posted at 12 April 2015 Reply

    We become Jenga Master’s trying to finagle everything in after reprovisioning. Thank you for this article as I’m planning on using a few of your ideas

  • Jim Allen
    Posted at 12 April 2015 Reply

    Have you tried cutting the holes at different heights to adjust the temp in the warmer section -because hot air rises??

  • John
    Posted at 12 April 2015 Reply

    Do you line the freezer with a plastic bag? What is your purpose for that. I like the idea to keep it clean. Any other reason?

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 12 April 2015 Reply

      No, that is simply a mock up of a boat refrigerator — I couldn’t find one with a top that totally lifted off so that I could take photos, so had to do the photos in a chest freezer where I mocked up a freezer compartment.

  • Delphine McCourt
    Posted at 12 April 2015 Reply

    Thank you so much for this article, this is giving me something to think about before we go cruising.

  • Sally K Petrie
    Posted at 12 April 2015 Reply

    Really enjoying your posts. Sturdy zip lock bags are great for organising the fridge/freezer too.

  • Frances Liz Fernandez
    Posted at 13 April 2015 Reply

    Excellent article

  • Heidi Howes-Killip
    Posted at 13 April 2015 Reply

    Good luck with that Katrina.

  • The Sea and Sailors
    Posted at 13 April 2015 Reply

    A very good idea!!!

  • Kelly Lerigny
    Posted at 13 April 2015 Reply

    most of these tips will work for my ‘extra’ fridge the big cooler we keep on the back. A great storage box that I can’t live without are vegetable keepers from Tupperware. They keep veggies and fruit fresh at least 5 times longer as they are ventable and have ridged bottoms, protect your delicate produce and you can stack them. Would make a great host gift if you are visiting a boat although bottle of rum is always welcome too:).

  • David Lake
    Posted at 05 April 2016 Reply

    best way to fix that,………………..get a front loader!!!

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 05 April 2016 Reply

      I have a front loader in our current boat, and I think I actually liked the top loader better in a lot of ways. It’s not at all bad once you get a system in place.

    • David Lake
      Posted at 05 April 2016 Reply

      I’ll stick with a nice big side by side………….

  • Charlotte Taylor
    Posted at 05 April 2016 Reply

    I wish you were a land lubber and would come and organize my Airstream!!! LOL!!!

    • Phyllis Pardee
      Posted at 05 April 2016 Reply

      Lots of RV organization ideas on Pinterest….I was amazed!!

  • Albert J K III
    Posted at 05 April 2016 Reply

    Ah, for the good old days of just pouring a bag of ice on top of everything. And, what you want is somewhere down towards the bottom. Or, nearby.

  • Jim Cosgrove
    Posted at 05 April 2016 Reply

    We bought a wireless digital indoor / outdoor thermometer and put the “outdoor” sensor in the boat’s refrigerator. We not only can monitor the temperature in the refrigerator without opening it, the unit keeps track of minimum and maximum temperatures. That’s especially handy when we’ve been away from the boat for a few days because we would know if there had been a power loss and a temporary warm up of the contents.

  • Rikke
    Posted at 11 April 2016 Reply

    When you look into our boat fridge, it’s rectangular. But, the bottom is irregular and I can’t set anything flat down there, nor stack anything. I tried to hang shelves (baskets), but then I can’t reach stuff in the bottom basket without removing the top basket. The rear wall is also irregular, so I really have only three sides that are straight up and down but all are uneven on the bottom. Inevitably, space will be wasted unless I put some rarely used items in plastic bags to even out the bottom. I guess I’ll keep trying to come up with a system, but I keep spending money on baskets I can’t use.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 11 April 2016 Reply

      Try putting some wood in the bottom to even it out. Some quarter or half-inch plywood and put more layers in the low spots — or just put one piece in the bottom and let it be the flat floor.

  • Toni Borrett
    Posted at 13 July 2016 Reply

    Hi Carolyn, love your posts! In our new to us boat, I now have a 2 drawer fridge freezer, but freezer is on top! Has taken some getting use to & some fiddling with best temperature setting. Too cold & the little top shelf in fridge freezes cheese, butter, yogurt etc, too warm & meat in freezer doesnt freeze! I have also put drinks only in an Engel camping fridge, lucky we have the room. It’s also very handy when we need to defrost, which unfortunately seems to come around quite quickly 6-8 weeks depending on outside temperature. We like to stay off grid for 3 weeks so it’s been a challenge but lots of things are compromises when cruising. Cheers, Toni, Australia

  • Donna Blagg
    Posted at 04 April 2017 Reply

    We gutted our old fridge/freezer and my husband rebuilt it. with a cold plate system on the freezer side. We have a number of holes drilled in the divider between the fridge and freezer that are the size of a standard wine cork. The corks can be added or removed in order to control the fridge and freezer temps. A digital thermometer with two sensors allows us to keep a close eye on the temps in both compartments and adjust the corks as necessary.

    I have found stainless steel mesh bins (various sizes) at Publix. These have been great for storing and stacking, They are sturdy and won’t crack as plastics will often do.

    Thanks, Carolyn, for your articles. Always interesting. Often find useful tips.

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