why do i suck at doing dishes?
February 25, 2009 8:25 AM   Subscribe

how can i get better at washing dishes by hand? i am inefficient (it takes me lots of time, energy and water). my results are not always sparkling (some of the stuff i wash ends up kinda greasy). i am clumsy too (i feel like i break a wine glass every few sessions). also, i am rarely motivated to wash (in part because i'm objectively bad), so i also need some kind of kick in the pants in that regard too.

i searched, and found some people complaining about their roommates, some people who always made their pots smell like soap, etc. but i am just interested in all the rules of thumb and techniques and tools that people use.

in one thread, i read that i should start with glasses while the water is the least greasy, and in general move from items i put in my mouth (glasses, silverware) -> dishes -> pots and pans. that's a good start.

another problem is that my roommate and i let the dishes pile up and "soak," but in the days/weeks that this pile forms, every single item gets covered in the same greasy water, so even the fork i used once gets covered in oily food water. ICK. HELP!
posted by k7lim to Home & Garden (24 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
My mother said over and over when I was younger that "The more you do it, the easier it will be." I hated the phrase at the time, with a passion, but she was entirely right.

What I do is either clean a pot right after use while it's still hot, or fill it with water and let it soak while I eat. Then when it comes to dishes and washing I keep a small bowl filled with hot soapy water and continually dip my sponge in that then scrub away. When I make a decent pile of scrubbed soapy dishes I rinse them all in hot water and start on the next set of dirty things. I finish with the pots or overly dirty vessels.
posted by Science! at 8:30 AM on February 25, 2009

Best answer: Wear rubber gloves: your grip will be better and you can use hot water.
posted by Carol Anne at 8:31 AM on February 25, 2009

Tip1: How to wash dishes.

Tip2: Stop letting your dishes pile up for days and or weeks. That's pretty gross and you're letting everything develop into some sort of super grime. Doesn't your place smell?
posted by zephyr_words at 8:34 AM on February 25, 2009

Yes to everything above. To reiterate:

Soak in hot water and soap anything that will be even remotely a pain to clean later. Rinse all plates, silverware and glasses as soon as they're not being used anymore.

Use rubber gloves and the hottest water you can stand through the gloves. Experiment with which dish soap works best for your needs.

Definitely follow appropriate dishwashing technique: least greasy to most greasy, and/or what goes in your mouth to what goes on the stove.

Wash ALL the dishes in the sink every night before bed. Making it a habit more than anything else will take a lot of the pain away. If you can do it with your roommate (one washes, one dries/puts away) the whole thing will go by really fast.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 8:50 AM on February 25, 2009

I used to hate doing the dishes. I now do them all the time, and consequently, never take longer than about five minutes.

If you have two sinks, fill one up with rinsing water and the other with suds. Wash cleanest to dirtiest, starting with glasses and finishing up with big manky pots and pans etc. I like to dump all the cutlery in at the start to give it time to soak while I do everything else.

If you've got one sink, use a washing up bowl, follow the same methodology, but leave a thin trickle of water running from the tap and rinse as you go (or if you can't bear to waste the water, fill a spray bottle and mist down your dishes in the rack when you're done).

Put the radio on or listen to something that'll engage the thinking centres of your brain (I listen to podcasts sometimes, or wedge my laptop into the fruit bowl and watch stuff on the BBC iPlayer. If you're American, maybe Hulu.com?).

However, it really is about doing them regularly. Don't leave stuff overnight if you can at all help it. Try to wash as you go. It makes it quicker, easier and gives you cleaner dishes. I used to store up the pain for 3 or 4 days at a stretch, then spend an hour ploughing through it, which I hated. Now I spend 10 minutes a day or less doing dishes. The only downside is I don't get through as many podcasts.
posted by Happy Dave at 8:50 AM on February 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think the single most important way of reducing the work involved in doing the dishes, and improving the end result, is rinsing as much visible crud as possible off your pans, plates, silverware, etc. as soon as you're finished eating or cooking. That way, even if you wait a day or two to do the dishes, at least when you come back to them, they won't have rock-hard food cemented onto them. All you'll have to do is hit them with a little sudsy sponge and get the grease off.
posted by letourneau at 8:52 AM on February 25, 2009

I always do my dishes in the morning while the coffee is making. This way there are never too many dishes and I have coffee waiting for me at the end of it. This keeps things from piling up generally. I don't know if this works for everyone, but it works pretty well for me.

- prep: anything that had food on it is either scraped before going in the sink [plates] or has some water put in it [coffee/cocoa mugs] or has been rinsed out and food gotten out [pots and pans] so all I'm dealing with is mostly just soaping and rinsing. Nothing needs to soak if it's been prepped well except the occasional baking pan.
- order: I wash the simple stuff first and let the water run over the rest of the stuff while I'm doing it [I am a leave the water on person, I save water in many other ways]. So, silverware, then glassware, then plates, then pots/pans. Any plate that has food remnants on it has now been under hot running water for a few minutes.
- water: as hot as I can stand it
- gear: I have one sponge with a scrubby on one side and a sponge on the other. Get the sponge part soapy and scrub the top/bottom/inside/outside of dishes and then rinse & place in dish drainer (which is right next to the sink and everything goes in it except pots and pans)
- wrap-up: leave pots and pans on the stove to dry when I'm finished. Rinse out the sink and the drain and do a little once over to make sure there's not water/soap on anything else. Leave. Drink coffee.

And that's it. Even if I eat two big meals at home, dishes take maybe ten minutes. You can play two songs on your music player to confirm this, you'll likely be done before the songs are over or before the coffee is ready. I put away the dishes as part of my night time before bed routine.
posted by jessamyn at 8:58 AM on February 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

My wife turned me on to dishmops and I'll never go back.

Never let the dishes pile up. It'll take you 10 minutes to wash them after every meal.

Here's what I do:

Aside from the dishmop, you should also have a green scrubby pad and for really hard stuff, a metal scouring pad.

Learn what to use on what. Dishmop for most stuff, scrubby pads for pots and pans. Never use soap on cast iron.

First, organize the dirty dishes into categories:

Plates / bowls
Pots / pans

Any pots and pans with a lot of crud attached to it should be filled with water (hot if greasy stuff, cold if starchy) and let sit on the counter until the rest of the dishes are done or longer if the stuff is really stuck.

Fill a bowl or pan with hot, soapy water. Best if the bowl is about 1/4 the size of your sink.

Clean stuff in the order above. Wash a few things at at a time. Dip the mop/sponge in the soapy water, clean the dish, put the soapy dish in the sink. When a few cleaned things have stacked up in the sink, rinse them under the water/hose and put them somewhere to dry. Rinsing a few things at a time keeps you from having to leave the water on all the time.

When the bowl of water is gross, dump it out and refill.

Repeat until the dishes are done.

Always clean the sink and surrounding counters when you're done with the dishes.
posted by bondcliff at 9:03 AM on February 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also, if you're not doing a large volume of dishes in a sitting, I suggest not filing your sink.
Scrape and rinse in the hottest water you can manage.
Use a brush to apply soap directly.
Rinse again a feel for stubborn bits.

You can wash a fairly large number of dishes (for one person) with the amount of water you'd have used filing the sink and it'll always be clean & hot. It just costs you extra soap.
posted by mce at 9:15 AM on February 25, 2009

the one thing i'll add is that one way that i managed dishes when i was single is that i put most of them away. i would have only 2 plates, bowls, etc. it meant that even when every dish in the house was dirty, it still wasn't as much of a chore. also made the kitchen look cleaner.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 9:20 AM on February 25, 2009

I know that I am universally hated for suggesting that this is an option, but call your mother and ask how she does it. She will have great advice, you'll be giving her a golden "I told you so" moment at absolutely no cost to yourself, and you will make her very very happy. You will get double bonus points forever if she gets to actually demonstrate, or watch you do it.
posted by nax at 9:38 AM on February 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Use a really good quality detergent. You only need a smear and it actually cuts the grease. The cheap stuff isn't saving you any money or doing you any favors. Get one that smells nice. It's only a small detail but it just helps the whole experience.

Don't let anything get dried out and crusty. Get into the habit of rinsing all the food off immediately. (Or just filling it with water so that your cornflakes won't stick when you actually go to wash it.) Think of it like a dishwasher? - You want things to be 'clean' before you even start, you're just making them sparkly and hygenic.
NEVER leave a sinkfull to 'soak'! That's fucking disgusting. Sure if the pan needs to soak so you won't need to scrub it - fill it.

And lastly - I hate murky water and have been known to refill the sink if it starts getting gross. If your water is that dirty it's not really cleaning anything... don't be afraid to just change it.

(Oh and I always do plastic straight after glass because oil sticks to plastic pretty bad and it's best to hit it while the water is still really hot.)
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 9:49 AM on February 25, 2009

I'm with you on the laziness with dishes. I just can't make myself wash up after every meal because my schedule is so hectic and I often am either running out of the house or going straight to bed immediately after I eat. Here's a few tricks I've learned to help with keeping down the clutter.

1. For anything which turns rock solid (i.e. oatmeal) I put a dash of soap in it, fill it with water and leave in the sink. It loosens everything, and makes it easier to wash once I get around to it.

2. I always clean my glasses when I return them to the kitchen. Plates and such take a longer time to clean, whereas a glass only takes a brief rinse and a tiny bit of soap to get clean.

3. Also, I try to keep the dishrack empty to encourage me to clean the dishes as I go.

4. I like to listen to my iPod and sing along while I wash. It helps the time pass.

5. I wring the sponge out after every wash, but I try to leave a little bit of soap in it so all I have to do is run it under water to wash a single dish.

6. To prevent small unnoticed nastiness I do the finger test as I rinse (and therefore don't advocate the use of gloves) by simply running my fingers over the surfaces of my dishes while the water's running. I catch most of the greasy spots that way.

The wash pail/rinse pail is a great idea, but with a tiny kitchen like mine I don't have space so I have to make do with what I have.
Those are my suggestions! Hope they help!
posted by big open mouth at 9:57 AM on February 25, 2009

While it's very nice for people to suggest not to let them pile up. That can be hard, especially with roommates. You can't control their behaviour.

If they get piled up, get rid of all of that old gross water and rinse the dishes and pile them up on the counter. Then start over with a fresh sink of hot soapy water. Clean the sink out to get rid of greasy residue.

I don't ever want dishes in my sink unless I'm going to wash them RIGHT NOW and even then, just a few at a time. One or two glasses, a few plates. This keeps me from breaking things.

If the water gets gross, start over. If you do them more often, it won't happen.

Definitely fill the sink and rinse with HOT water. It will help the dishes dry very quickly and won't cool down the water you are using to wash the rest of the dishes. Having a big sink of hot soapy water encourages me to do ALL of the dishes and wipe down the counters and stove while I'm at it. oh and sweep the floor after you wipe down the counters and table.

Keeping dishes out of you sink is great because it allows you to start more quickly, not having to deal with icky old dishes. It also allows you to use the sink when cooking, getting water, etc. and reduces the chance of breaking things. If I'm talking about this a lot, it's because it's a bit of a pipe dream for me. Maybe someday!
posted by Gor-ella at 10:00 AM on February 25, 2009

Don't put dirty dishes in the sink. This prevents your roommate from doing his own dishes, and once you BOTH have dishes in the sink, both of you resent the job of washing them.

If you are cooking, run some hot soapy water and wash things as you finish with them, or while you're waiting for the microwave or something. By the time you're eating, you should have washed everything except a pan or two and a couple of plates.

If the water gets cold and skanky while you're washing, chuck it and run some fresh.

If you're washing up, wash EVERYTHING up, including stuff left over from breakfast and the things that have been standing around for weeks because you don't really want to wash them up, and the things that you are convinced Roommate dirtied but he thinks you did it.

If your kitchen surface is cluttered with all kinds of crap, tidy it up and keep it tidy. This makes the unfinished washing up more noticeable.

If you have a dinner table, get in the habit of eating at it (not sitting on the sofa). When you get up from the table after dinner, walk straight into the kitchen with the plates and start washing up. Eating on the sofa just encourages you to put your plate on the floor when you're done, and think "sure I'll wash up later"... procrastination starts here.
posted by emilyw at 10:00 AM on February 25, 2009

If you're washing with a sponge, stop. No matter what you do, it will smell nasty after a few uses, and it doesn't do much in terms of cleaning action. Sponges are for counters. Dobies are for dishes.

Get a dish soap that smells pleasant. This may involve upgrading to a "premium" brand. Small investment to improve something that's apparently really bugging you.

Approach your dish-doing like surgery. Keep the field (sink) clear. Stack the dirties on one side, and have a landing zone on the other. Wash them one at a time, with hot water. Rinse.

Be like President Obama and Tich Nhat Hanh: make dish washing into a meditative task.

I love washing dishes; it calms me down and makes me happy. I think it has something to do with the idea of making something dirty pure again. It's a very concrete task that is cyclical and impermanent. There will always be dishes to be washed. A nice cabinet full of clean dishes signifies potential.

Someday, I will make an excellent wifey.
posted by charmcityblues at 10:29 AM on February 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's some good advice above. I'll add a few caveats.

Anything made in two parts, like knives, should not be soaked at all. Wooden items shouldn't be soaked very long.

A metal scrubber can ruin pans or anything delicate. Plastic scrubbers are harder to find in stores, but that's what you want. In addition, a clean toothbrush often comes in handy.

If you must soak something, use cold water, no soap.

If you can't wash dishes right away, don't immerse the dishes, just run some water over each item as you add it to a (short, not tottery) stack.

It's better to scrape your plates into a compost tub or your garbage bag than to rinse stuff down the drain.

To clean coffee or tea stains, use a little baking soda.

I've never seen the point of a big pan of hot soapy water. A small bowl of hot water with enough detergent to make it very sudsy is all you need. With this method you don't immerse the dishes. You get your sponge sopping wet, wipe each item all over with the sponge, and stack till you have a small pile. Then rinse with hot water, running it just long enough to get things suds-free. We often have to be careful with our water, so we never leave the water running. Put things in the dish rack and let dry.

I figure it takes me 20 minutes to wash our dishes, but that's because I make a lot of pans dirty when I cook. I used to listen to a 10-minute broadcast of French news--twice--when I was trying to improve my French. If you're trying to learn or memorize something, keeping a copy at the sink helps you do two things at once.
posted by sevenstars at 11:08 AM on February 25, 2009

I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown after about a week of using a natural/organic/new-age dish detergent Boyfriend picked up once. I am all for natural products, but this stuff made my job of washing the dishes incredibly frustrating, and it was taking me much longer to get the dishes clean than with regular Dawn. I was also using many, many times more of it than just the typical drop or two with Dawn. Needless to say, we bought normal detergent, ended up using the all-natural product for cleaning counters, and everyone was happy.

Also, I try to use disposable latex examination gloves as much as I can for the really gross stuff.
posted by halogen at 11:31 AM on February 25, 2009

First I rinse the glops of food and sauces off everything (or scrape into the garbage can if I don't have a disposal). I have a double sink and I fill the side WITHOUT the disposal with soapy hot water, then for rinsing, I fill the other sink with hot water to which I sometimes add a touch of bleach (depending on how paranoid I am about germs that day). If I don't have a double sink I buy one of those Rubbermaid square tubs and fill that with the hot water/bleach. (And if I'm in a situation where I don't even have that, I just stack up the washed items on a towel on the counter.)

In the soapy water I wash the cleanest items first: silverware, cups/glasses usually, and transfer them to the rinse water. If the soapy water becomes too dirty (can't see through it anymore) I empty the sink, rinse the residue away, and refill it with hot water and soap.

When I'm done washing, take the rinsed dishes from the rinse water and dry them by hand or let them air dry in a dish rack. Some people have dishwashers they refuse to use, so they let their hand-washed dishes air dry inside the dishwasher. If I have no rinse water prepared, I empty the soapy water, rinse the sink out and then use that to rinse my dishes. I prefer to fill the sink with the rinse water rather than let the water run over my soapy washed dishses because you waste water as it goes down the drain.

And then I'm done!

If you don't have a goal of producing clean stuff, you'll likely end up with dirty stuff. I take pleasure in a job well done; I love squeaky clean foodware. I live with a 15 year old boy who is AWFUL at dishes. His problem? He doesn't pay attention. He daydreams, stops in the middle to try to watch TV, broods over his rotten lot in life, lets the water run while he text messages his friends, ruminates about how much he hates doing the dishes, etc. This just prolongs his agony, wastes water, and causes him to do a lousy job - for which he gets in trouble. Repeatedly.
posted by Piscean at 11:54 AM on February 25, 2009


Seriously. Go to the store and buy the heaviest cleaning gloves you can find. You can usually pick up a bad ass pair of neoprene gloves for about $5.

I hated... and I mean -hated- doing dishes. Then I got some thick gloves and the problem solved itself. No more burnt on food digging under my finger nails, no more weird food paste squishing between my fingers... just clinical application of scalding hot water and soap.
posted by JFitzpatrick at 1:26 PM on February 25, 2009

my results are not always sparkling (some of the stuff i wash ends up kinda greasy)

I don't use gloves, so I use my fingers to feel when things are clean. You may sometimes have to wash and rinse something twice to get it really clean.

i am clumsy too (i feel like i break a wine glass every few sessions).

I try to keep my left hand soap free and use that to hold whatever I'm scrubbing with my right hand. You can also rinse part of the thing you're scrubbing to make a little soap free area to hold on to.
posted by benign at 6:41 PM on February 25, 2009

Don't forget to stack material well. That is if you are soaking make sure that things are stacked and nested as much as possible so. This will cut down on things tumbling all over the place and allow for you to stack things to dry more effectively. It also allows you to organize and deploy things to rinse better in less space.

If you are washing a large amount of dishes by stacking and organizing into categories you can wash more efficiently.

Excellent advice up thread on order of things.
posted by jadepearl at 7:13 PM on February 25, 2009

Can't resist anymore. I never soak dishes in a sink full of water, yuk. A little detergent and a little water up to the rim of the plate is enough to keep a crust from forming. You can still stack dishes "soaking" this way, you'll just get a little water on the counter. The huge benefit of this is that you will never have to plunge your hands into old, cold, greasy water.

If you're not going to do the dishes right away, at least organize them in nicely stacked piles, or with smaller items like coffee cups inside larger items like pots. Make sure you have scraped/rinsed them as clean as possible so that food is not rotting away on the counter, or worse, in the sink. This will make it less awful and daunting to look at. Second the suggestion upthread to wash up prep items like pans as you go. When you only have to wash the dishes, not a huge pile of pots, it just feels less burdensome.

I wash dishes under running water. My mother washed dishes under running water. My grandmother washed dishes under running water. If my greatgrandmother had HAD running water she would have washed dishes this way. Washing dishes in a sinkfull of water is not actually washing them. It's just moving dirty water around on them.

I suspect that the "grease" you are finding on your supposedly clean dishes is actually soap film, so here you take the advice on the shampoo (yes shampoo) : Lather, Rinse, Repeat. (Um, you're not using the shampoo, just the advice). When you are done with the dishes scour the sink to get rid of the grease and soap film building up there (esp. if you soak your dishes-- if you don't clean the sink, you're just repeatedly releasing old grease into new water).

Make sure the dish squeaks when you run your thumb over it before you put it in the drainer.

P.S. Not to be a broken record here, and not that reading everyone's dish washing method isn't oddly fascinating, but your mother knows all this stuff.
posted by nax at 5:57 AM on February 26, 2009

nax, please leave the mother stuff alone. Many people's mothers are crazy, dead, dying, incapable of polite communication, or bad at dishes. There is an open MeTa thread about this.

OP, the last part of this entire equation is working out something with your roommates. You can be the best dish doer of all time and still have a problem if your roommates aren't on board, making the problem worse, using soap on your coast iron pan, or whatever it is. You may want to either

- have a frank discussion with them about your goals for the dish environment in the kitchen
- do your own dishes as soon as possible so as not to become part of the dirty dish environment and hope that it doesn't grow to envelop all the dishes in the house
- decide that you're going to be "the clean one" and make the dishes your thing and work something out where the trash or whatever other household task is their thing. I did this in a group living situation and it was fine. I did al the dishes and I basically didn't have to do any other housework because most people thought it was the most noxious taks but I didn't mind it.

You may not be able to reach some equality of dishes in the house -- I used to have a roommate who wouldn't use hot water to wash the dishes because he was saving energy so we had greasy dishes at all times, that was a bad situation -- but at least you can try.
posted by jessamyn at 7:59 AM on February 26, 2009

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