Diminishing Dishwashing Drudgery

I’m the dishwasher in our household.  We have a mechanical dishwasher, but it’s about 50 years old.  It looks really neat–straight out of The Kitchen of Tomorrow, Yesterday!–but we’re afraid to use it because the rubber gasket around the door is hard as a rock, so probably the water would pour out onto the floor.  Someday we will make friends with a dishwasher geek, who will consider it great fun to rehabilitate this quaint old machine. [UPDATE: We bought a new mechanical dishwasher in 2011.]

Meanwhile, I don’t mind washing dishes by hand all that much.  I’ve figured out some dishwashing strategies that work for me!

The most important one is having a designated dishwasher in the household or a schedule for taking turns.  Apparently there are households in which each person washes his own dishes, but I have never lived in a home where that approach worked, and I’ve heard many, many complaints about the various ways it doesn’t work in various people’s homes and workplace kitchens.  I have been the sole dishwasher in every place I’ve lived since 1994, except for a few months when my housemates wanted to switch to an “everybody cleans up after themselves” system–which meant, “each person cleans up the messes most obviously connected to herself, but nobody ever sweeps the floor or cleans the toilet, and Becca winds up re-washing the dishes that were put away with bits of food still stuck to them”–and we used dish detergent at three times the usual rate because washing just a few dishes at a time is so much less efficient!

Speaking of efficiency, I typically wash dishes once every two days.  This is for a household of three people (or two or four, in earlier configurations) who eat lunch outside the home but some days are bringing home used lunch containers, and who own a relatively large assortment of dishes.  If you have more people or fewer dishes or strong feelings about the propriety of leaving dishes in the sink, then you’ll have to wash more often.  For me, two days is the right amount of time to collect enough dishes to make full use of a sinkful of hot soapy water.  It also seems to be the most efficient use of my time: If I wash every day, it takes about 45 minutes to set up, wash dishes, and clean up; if I wash every other day, it takes about 1 hour (to wash twice as many dishes as in 45 minutes!); if I wash less often, it takes so long that I can’t do it all without a break, which adds significantly to the total time and aggravation.  My “set up” includes cleaning the washing side of the double sink, filling it with hot soapy water with a shot of vinegar, putting dishes into the water and stacking the rest on the counter, cleaning the rinsing side of the sink, and spreading a towel on the counter under the dish drainer.  My “clean up” includes draining the water, rinsing the wash sink, cleaning the drain screen, and wiping all the kitchen counters.  Since these tasks have to be done every time I wash dishes, doing them less often saves time!  (Of course, I do sometimes clean the sinks or counters at other times, if they need it.)

What’s that about a towel under the drainer?  I use a cloth towel instead of a plastic mat under the dish drainer because I cannot tolerate the slime and mildew that builds up on and under those mats or the scrubbing required to keep those problems at bay.  A towel prevents water from dribbling off the counter.  It does get very wet and hold moisture against the countertop, but it dries faster than the underneath of a plastic mat, and it’s machine washable!

Notice that I mentioned soaking the dishes in soapy water.  Some people wash dishes by squirting soap on a wet cloth and scrubbing a dry or recently-dampened dish; they add more soap for every dish or every few.  This uses a lot more soap and requires a lot more scrubbing effort!  If you soak the dishes for just a few minutes, a lot of them appear clean when you take them out of the water, and you only have to give them a quick wipe.  The foods that do need to be scrubbed off will be significantly loosened by soaking.  For a sink “full” of water (I actually fill it to less than half its capacity, using 2-3 gallons of water) I use about 1/2 teaspoon of detergent and blast it with my sink sprayer to make good suds.  That’s enough water to wash all my dishes–when I finish washing the first ones in the sink, I put another batch in to soak and then rinse the first ones.  It’s only if we’ve been eating a lot of oily foods that I have to change the water partway through a normal two days’ worth of dishes.

We have used only plant-based dish detergent in our home for more than a decade. All of these brands are excellent, in my experience:
Bi-O-Kleen
Citra-Dish
Dishmate (made by Ecos/Earth Friendly Products)
Ecover
Kirkland Signature (Costco house brand–they make both a conventional and a plant-based one; we’ve only tried the plant-based one)
Seventh Generation
Sun & Earth
Trader Joe’s.

Even in a house with no vermin problem, you don’t want to leave dishes lying around for two days with globs of food on them; they’ll smell bad, and the food will be hard to wash off after it’s dried onto the dishes.  Therefore, we take a moment after eating to rinse dishes and stack them neatly.  We store dirty dishes in one side of the sink (the side I use for rinsing) and leave the other side available for everyday use.  When we had a single sink, we stacked dirty dishes on a designated section of the counter, away from the food-preparation area.

For further savings of time and energy, minimize the number of dirty dishes by using some dishes more than once between washings.  A water glass, for example, isn’t really dirty after one use, so the same person can use it again if she keeps track of which one it is.  Cereal bowls, coffee cups, and such may be “clean enough” after a quick rinse that you can use them again.  Keep “gently used” dishes at your place at the table, in a certain area on the counter, or whatever works for you.

Drying dishes with a towel is a waste of time and effort, if you have enough space (and clutter tolerance) to let them drip dry.  The typical wire dish drainer will hold much more than one layer of dishes, and figuring out how to stack them gives the dishwasher something interesting to think about!  If your walls are tiled or otherwise able to withstand moisture, and you can put the drainer in a corner within reach of the sink, the walls stabilize the drainer and provide additional surfaces for the dishes to lean against.  When I run out of space in the drainer, I stack dishes on a cloth towel spread flat on the counter.  In fact, in my first apartment  we didn’t have a dish drainer, so I just dried all the dishes that way.  The only concern is that dishes with one opening (cups, bowls, jars, etc.) need to be placed such that air can circulate inside; if they’re standing rim-down on a wet towel, they tend to get funky inside.  I used to lay a fork or spoon on the towel and stand a glass with one edge of its rim on the handle of the utensil.  Now, I just wash the cups and glasses first so they go into the drainer.  Bowls can be drained on a towel, leaning up against the wall or the outside of the drainer.

To occupy my mind in between feats of death-defying dish-stacking, I sometimes read a magazine propped up behind the sink.  To do this, you need a magazine that folds flat and has plenty of content per page, a windowsill or other ledge that doesn’t automatically get wet whenever the sink is used, and some type of low yet heavy object to hold the magazine at a readable angle.  The magazines I read are Harper’s, Mother Jones, and Nutrition Action Healthletter.  My heavy object is a pretty pewter gadget intended for holding a recipe card, and owning it is the reason I started reading while washing dishes–I won a gift certificate to a ritzy knick-knack shop, and this was the only thing I could find there that seemed remotely useful, but most of my recipes are the approximate type and I can make them from memory rather than using a card, so I brainstormed additional uses for this object….  If you happen to have a hands-free cookbook holder that fits behind your sink, that would be even better!

Of course, you can’t read while washing dishes (or watch TV, as some people do) unless you wash by touch instead of by sight: use your fingertips to feel for rough or sticky spots that need to be rubbed off.  This generally gets the dishes cleaner than washing off only gunk you can see.  The other advantage to it is that (if you’re not reading) you can wash dishes in minimal lighting, which is more restful and conserves energy.

But if I wash dishes with my bare hands, how do I avoid ruining my skin?  Well, for one thing, I’m blessed with skin that is not all that sensitive and puts up with quite a bit!  Also, after washing dishes I put oil or lotion on my hands while they’re still damp.  Whenever we use up a bottle of cooking oil, we put it next to the sink.  The last drops of oil, an amount too small to bother draining out for cooking purposes, are perfect for moisturizing my hands! I just invert the bottle on my palm until some oil comes out, then rub it into my hands and hold them out to dry for a minute (while I read another page…) before touching anything.  One apparently-empty bottle will coat my hands up to five times!

Sponges are gross, so I wash dishes with a cotton dishcloth.  I have lots so that I can use a clean one every time I wash dishes.  The previous dishcloth (which has been hanging on a hook, available for wiping up spills) gets used to clean the sink and counters, and then it goes into the laundry.  For stuck-on food and tea stains, a pinch of baking soda on the dishcloth works wonders!

Finally, for those times when my dishwashing motivation is low, I have a couple of inspirational cartoons hanging near the sink.  One depicts a guy pouring boiling water over a teabag held in his open mouth, with the caption Steve hated washing dishes–the anxious-yet-resigned look on Steve’s face cracks me up every time!  The other is a “Mr. Natural” cartoon in which he grumbles about the kitchen full of dirty dishes, yet as he washes them his mood improves, until at the end he’s looking at the gleaming pile in the drainer and beaming, “A job well done!”  That reminds me of one of the things I like about washing dishes: In one hour of simple, undemanding labor, I can achieve something that visibly makes life better for me and the rest of the family.  It’s a lot less abstract and long-term than most of the work I do at my paying job, and it’s really very satisfying.

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About 'Becca
author of The Earthling's Handbook, about the environment, parenting, cooking, and more!

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