How to Do the Dishes Every Day Without Losing Your Mind: Back to Basics

Woman loading a dishwasher
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Are you overwhelmed by piles of dirty dishes? Does the thought of washing the same pots and pans every day for the rest of eternity fill you with dread? It's okay--I've got you.

Doing the dishes is one of the most essential–and most hated–chores in every home. It’s one of those never-ending conveyor belt tasks. And if you put off washing up even for a single day, it’s all too easy to find yourself overwhelmed and horrified by your own kitchen.

If you’re lucky enough to have a dishwasher in your home, that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. It takes one of the most labor-intensive steps off your hands, but you still need to do the tedious prep work and then put the clean dishes away.

I have a theory that over the last thirty or forty years, there’s been a fundamental breakdown in the way we learn basic adulting skills. Ideally, we’d all learn the same core skills at home, starting with dishes and laundry. Once upon a time, there were also Home Ec classes in public schools.

But the world has changed, and “homemaking” comes with a lot of complex baggage now. Is it feminist to learn how to get stains out of your laundry? Who cares how white your grout is when the world is on fire? Shouldn’t there be an app to do this for me?!

Okay, deep breath. That stack of dirty dishes festering beside your sink does not care about the sociopolitical context. It is starting to attract fruit flies, however, so roll up your sleeves and join me as we learn to wash dishes together.

Gather Your Tools

Dishwashing requires just a few simple tools. You’ll need some kind of soap–and much less of it than you probably think. We’re talking a couple of drops! Get a scrubby cloth or sponge; however, if you use sponges make sure that you are sanitizing them in the dishwasher or the microwave because they are basically bacteria factories. I also like brushes with tough nylon bristles, but the scrubbing tool is really up to you.

Note that the sponge is using a cloth to wash dishes…

You’ll also need a lint-free, absorbent drying cloth. Because we are going to dry these dishes and put them away, darn it. Oh, and water. That helps. We’re going to fill up a plastic tub or your sink with hot, soapy water. Then we’re going to fill a second tub or sink with more hot water without soap for rinsing.

Finally, there’s a simple, cheap tool that you absolutely must get. A dish scraper is an essential item made from nylon or silicone that will squeegee as much gunk as possible before you start washing. Trust me, it’s going to change everything.

Scrape and Soak

For 90% of your dishes, scraping should be the first step. Scrape as much food as possible into the trash/compost/disposal. That step is going to save you so much time and effort. In fact, if you have a dishwasher, scraping might be the only prep you need to do before loading.

If you’ve got tough, caked on nastiness to deal with, then it needs to be soaked in hot, soapy water. However, set yourself a timer and don’t let it soak for more than, say, 20 minutes. If you leave it for longer than that, there’s a very real chance that the dishes will just live in there forever. Ask me how I know!

Once your dishes have soaked, give ’em another scrape to remove any residual food. Baked-on cheese is the most tenacious stuff in the world and should probably be tested by NASA as a bonding agent for shuttle parts. Just keep soaking and scraping until it’s gone. For truly tenacious burned bits, you can try using a damp scrubby cloth with some table salt or baking soda.

Face Your Handwashing Fears

Regardless of whether you’re cleaning up after a solo meal or an entire house full of people, dishwashing by hand follows the same basic steps. Non-America readers are probably looking at this and rolling their eyes, since this is the standard way most of the developed world tackles their dishes.

Fill your sink or a plastic tub (in a pinch, use a mixing bowl) with hot, soapy water. Stack your dishes in there, nesting like-size plates and bowls with each other to minimize the amount of space they take up.

Grab one piece at a time, starting with the least dirty dishes first. Scrub them clean and then rinse the suds in your soap-free tub/sink. You can also rinse under running water, but that’s pretty wasteful. Do replace the hot, soapy water if it goes cold or gets too nasty to continue using, however.

The clean dishes should go into a dish drainer or onto a clean, absorbent cloth. Once every piece is scrubbed and rinsed, grab a towel and dry off any remaining water. The final step is to put your beautiful, hand-washed dishes away where they belong.

Dishwashers Aren’t Magic

Dishwashers can cut out the middle part of the hand-washing routine. From personal experience, they also cause intense, multi-year arguments about the “right” way to load them. In fact, there is a correct way:

  • Knives go in point-first, handle-up so you don’t stab yourself
  • Dishes face inward toward the center of the machine
  • Group utensils by type in the cutlery basket, but place some handle-up and some handle-down so they don’t nest and prevent thorough cleaning
  • Put smaller and more fragile items between the upright tines on the top rack, not over them
  • Small, lightweight items like lids should go in a mesh bag on the top rack

Depending on how many dishes your household generates, you may need to run it once a day or once every two or three days. Try to run it at the same time every day so that unloading becomes a ritualized habit–first thing in the morning or last thing before bed is best.

Make Sink Zero More Attainable

In a perfect world, you’d snuggle into bed every night with a gleamingly clean kitchen sink awaiting tomorrow’s breakfast dishes. “Sink Zero” just means that all your dishes get washed by the end of the day. It’s a good policy. Having clean dishes makes it much easier to cook meals for yourself at home, thereby saving money and improving your health.

One of the best ways to build positive habits is to make them easier. Aside from the dishwasher–which, again, only automates certain steps of the process but doesn’t fundamentally change it–the basic steps of dishwashing haven’t changed in hundreds of years. If I knew of some way to make it faster or more efficient, I’d share it with you.

Instead, I’m going to tell you a different secret. The key is to make fewer dirty dishes. Wash as you go during downtime while you cook. Use as few dishes and utensils as possible so that you aren’t overwhelmed. One-pot recipes are your friend. If you struggle with “Use Every Clean Dish in the House Before You Wash Anything” syndrome, then limit the total number of dishes you own!

And one final tip to make dishes less terrible: Listen to a podcast. Your brain will be engaged while your hands take care of the dirty work.

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