You know it's time to organize the freezer when you can't remove a bag of sweet potato fries without causing a frozen-food avalanche. Your freezer should be your weekday workhorse, your back-pocket solution to a late meeting or an evening soccer game. With an organized, well-stocked freezer, you can throw together a quick, satisfying meal in minutes. But how do you go from natural disaster to streamlined synergy? It's easier than you think.

Step 1: Clarify Your Goals

The real work begins before you even open the freezer door. "Organization is about making choices and thinking through what you need," says change strategist and organizational expert Kristine Oller. And, most likely, what you need in a freezer is simple: to be able to find things quickly and to keep track of its contents.

"When I was growing up, my mom would lose things in the back of her freezer and you'd never know what was in there," recalls Cindy Burgstein, of Honolulu, whose two daughters are 7 and 9. Cindy's husband does most of the food preparation in their house, but Cindy keeps their freezer in working order so he always has ready access to ingredients.

Think about which foods you need to be the most accessible -- whether that's heat-and-eat meals for a new mom or bulk meats for a family with hungry teenagers. "You have to look at your routine," says Burgstein. Is the closest grocery store on your way home from work or is it miles away? Do you cook daily or batch-cook on weekends? The answers to these questions will help you figure out your new freezer setup.

Step 2: Purge and Sort

Once you understand your priorities, it's time to whittle down your wares. Start by taking everything out of the freezer and tossing items that are expired, have freezer burn, or are unidentifiable. Then sort all like items into a few basic categories, such as breakfast foods, fruits and vegetables, meat, and sweet treats.

Labeling is important, but it doesn't have to be complicated. Oller's two favorite tools for organizing a freezer are Ziploc bags and Sharpies. She does, however, recommend a simple color-coding system: for example, using a pink label on all meats, or a blue one on fruit. "Color lets you sort without reading, which saves time," Oller explains. And if you have a child with allergies, color-coding can be a great way to designate food that's safe for him to consume.

Step 3: Think in Terms of "Zones"

Regardless of whether you have a side-by-side freezer, a box-style top freezer, a pullout bottom freezer, or a cavernous chest freezer, explains Oller, the key to keeping it organized is to divide it into zones.

For example, let's assume you have a top freezer with one shelf. The space above the shelf is one zone, the area below the shelf is the second zone, and the third zone is the freezer door. If you're looking for the blueberries you froze last summer, and you always store fruit in zone one, then you don't even have to think about the other two parts of the freezer, which will save you a lot of effort.

This system is intuitive, says Burgstein. "I have vegetables on one shelf, my fruits for smoothies on another shelf," she says. "My meats are all piled up together, and when I buy new ones, I put them on the bottom of the pile."

Freezer Organization

Step 4: Finalize Your Setup - But Don't Go Crazy

Now comes the fun part: putting everything back into adorable, matching containers that make your freezer look as if it has been curated by a professional designer.

Or not.

The only containers Oller uses are two small cardboard boxes, one of which holds herbs and another that stores tiny items such as lemon juice cubes or pesto that would otherwise get lost. The other foods in her freezer are simply placed in their assigned zone.

"It's a freezer," says Oller. "It doesn't need to be beautiful. It just needs to function."

If, however, a row of identical plastic bins helps keep your tower of frozen peas separate from the pile of multigrain waffles, then by all means use them. In fact, feel free to repurpose well-ventilated containers from other parts of the house: Cabinet dividers, magazine bins, and even file trays can transform a freezer.

organized freezer
Credit: Adam Albright

Step 5: Keep Your Maintenance System Simple

The goal is to create an organizational system that will be easy and logical to maintain, not to make your life more difficult. One way to keep things in shape: Think before you freeze. "You don't want to overstuff it with things you don't use," says Burgstein, who once sacrificed precious freezer real estate to an enormous box of popsicles that went uneaten for months.

Some people like to have a comprehensive list of what goes in and out, to help keep track of the freezer's contents, but this type of meticulous inventory-keeping is not going to work for everyone. Instead, suggests Oller, jot down only the more unusual items (puff-pastry dough, Parmesan rinds, chipotle peppers) you might otherwise forget about.

By keeping your setup simple, you'll save valuable time and avoid frustration. Best of all, you'll end up with an orderly, functional, avalanche-free freezer -- and easy access to those sweet-potato fries.