Question about roommates and kitchen cleaning habits and finding a happy medium
September 29, 2009 8:23 AM   Subscribe

What is a reasonable/normal amount of time for dirty dishes to be left in the sink, before they should be cleaned up? (This is a roommates question)

One of my roommates thinks it's perfectly ok to leave dishes and cooking stuff in the sink for a week or more. This morning, I asked him if he has plans to wash his dishes sometime in the next month. To which he replied: "It's only been a week!" Shocked that he thinks this is acceptable, I replied: "that's a long-ass time!" He said he'll do them tonight. We'll see about that.

I clean my dishes daily, usually immediately after using something (unless it's something that needs to soak for a bit), because I don't like a mess, and I just find it easier that way. These are my own habits, and I don't expect others to adopt them.

My idea of reasonable/normal is to not leave your stuff in the sink for more than 2 days. Because it smells, and generates clutter in the sink, impeding on other people washing their stuff. I'm fine with cleaning someone's lone spoon or knife or cup, but a stack of dishes is, I believe, the responsibility of the user. (fyi, we do not have a dishwasher)

The above roommate, per the above conversation (and his noticeable habits), obviously thinks it's not a problem to leave stuff in the sink for a week or more. The rule in our house is to use our own basics of dishes and cooking stuff, but borrowing something every now and then is totally fine. He thus has his own dishes and cups, but dirties them all, using mine, and leaving mine all crusty and gross in the sink, or missing - probably somewhere in his room. I find this gross and very disrespectful.

There is a 3rd roommate in the picture - we both have roughly the same cleaning habits, but the roommate above helps himself to my stuff, because I am admittedly more patient about calling him out on his shit.

Having lived alone and with roommates before, I know that "kitchen habits" vary, are very personal, and are one of the most difficult things to change about a person. But when it comes to doing dishes, what exactly is "normal?" Within reason?

There are other issues with this roommate, and he is currently awaiting his third strike on something unrelated, so we are very aware of his general irresponsibility. And maybe this sounds like a petty roommate question, but my annoyance with him is growing, and I just want to have a better idea of what is considered "normal" when it comes to doing dishes, and general kitchen cleanliness with roommates, so maybe we can agree to a happy medium
posted by raztaj to Society & Culture (42 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
When I was 17, the answer was forever. Now I am 42, just do your damn dishes already and leave them to drain. Don't you guys get maggots and stuff? How do you cook around the mess? At least once a day. At least!
posted by b33j at 8:26 AM on September 29, 2009

With food on them? Overnight, maybe. (I do this sometimes, and usually feel guilty about it.)

I went to college in The South and believe me, you would not want Savannah cockroaches to get wind of week-old dishes. They would probably eat them dish and all.
posted by JoanArkham at 8:27 AM on September 29, 2009

Address this firmly as a non-negotiable food-safety issue, not a "you're disgusting" issue, if you're trying to keep things cordial: after 3 days, food rots.
posted by availablelight at 8:27 AM on September 29, 2009

Best answer: If they are YOUR OWN DISHES then you can leave them to get skanky as long as you like, in your own room, short of creating a pest hazard.

If they are MY DISHES or shared dishes, I want them washed the same day you use them.

If they are in the only sink, then I need them out of the way before I happen to have any dirty dishes that I need to wash myself.
posted by emilyw at 8:27 AM on September 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

And maybe this sounds like a petty roommate question

This is not petty. Your roommate is a disgusting slob.
posted by Adam_S at 8:28 AM on September 29, 2009

To answer your primary question, leaving dirty dishes in the sink for a week is gross and you are rightly disgusted. However, since there are other issues, it's hard to know where this one lies in relative importance to the others. Update?
posted by pintapicasso at 8:29 AM on September 29, 2009

I'd say 24 hours, but then I like washing up. A week is a ridiculous amount of time.

Show him a few episodes of How Clean Is Your House. In most episodes, Kim and Aggie make a big fuss about how many bacteria there are on a given work surface. Maybe you could use this to scare him into action?
posted by Solomon at 8:29 AM on September 29, 2009

End of the day.
No one should be leaving dishes overnight.
And using your dishes because he can't be bothered to do his own? Well that's just gross.

Unless you all have an agreement for something else. What ever the agreement is, everyone should be sticking to it.
posted by SLC Mom at 8:29 AM on September 29, 2009

I hate when my roommates leave dirty dishes in the sink for the reasons you mention, but then again my place has a dishwasher, so that makes it even more egregious in my view. Anyway, when new people moved in this year we sat down and discussed kitchen habits and I proposed a 24-hour rule -- dirty dishes can be left in the sink for a maximum of 24 hours. However I think that should be the exception, not the rule. I get really annoyed if I have to clean up after someone else in order to use my kitchen. This is not easy behavior to change in someone else, however. Good luck.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:30 AM on September 29, 2009

My personal habits: breakfast dishes stay in the sink until I get home from work, then they get cleaned. Dinner prep dishes get cleaned as I am cooking. Dinner eating dishes generally get cleaned immediately after dinner. I have been known to leave dishes in the sink for up to, say, two days depending on my level of energy and enthusiasm.

My prior roommate would leave things in the sink for weeks at a time, and would actually get mad at me if I cleaned them. She also had the annoying habit of not emptying the dish drainer.

My college roommates were all over the place. One guy just left his dirty dishes to pile up in his bedroom (since he ate in there most times) and then dumped them all in the sink when we ran out of glasses or whatever. Not that he actually cleaned any of them, but he did return them to the common area. Other roommates were generally more considerate.

So, is it normal? Yes, there seems to be a subset of folks (and it seems to be younger folks in my experience) that don't give a rat's ass about when the dishes get done. Is it inconsiderate? I think so, but your dirty roommate may think you're being overly anal retentive. Will this piss you off to no end until one of you moves out? In my experience, yes.
posted by backseatpilot at 8:37 AM on September 29, 2009

I try to always clean them at the end of the day, but sometimes if there are a lot of dishes drying, et cetera (or, um, I'm drunk when I go to sleep), they sometimes get washed the following day. I actually can't stand washing dishes immediately, because I'm always late generally, and it seems more efficient to me to do them in one big swoop.

SO is mostly an immediate dish-washer and hates letting dishes pile up at all. We're lucky in that we have a sink with two basins. Our general system is that we each have one basin, where our personal dishes go. If one of us cooks for both of us, the cooking dishes go in the opposite partner's basin so that the work is split up evenly. However, this works mostly because there's a tacit agreement between us that dishes left for too long are gross. We also both rinse plates first so that the task isn't too arduous or nasty. We've both lived with people who were as gross as your roommate, and realize how unreasonable it is.

I'm not sure what the solution would be in your case, but I think you have to at least do away with letting this guy use your dishware, if his habits preclude you from using them.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:40 AM on September 29, 2009

When I was 22 and living by myself, the answer was either "until milk can become a solid" or "until I can put all the dishes in a bucket and walk them over to my boyfriend's apartment because he has a dishwasher".

Now that I'm 35 and married, the answer is "by the end of the day."
posted by Lucinda at 8:42 AM on September 29, 2009

Best answer: Make him use paper plates and cups and plastic cutlery. Pots and pans only if he cleans them up right after eating, otherwise it's microwave on the paper plate or cold food only. If he doesn't want to live like a responsible person, then he gets picnic dishes. I do like the idea of stacking all the dishes in his room, except that he could end up with almost all of them there over time and it would stink and attract vermin.
posted by x46 at 8:44 AM on September 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

24 hours ought to be the absolute limit.

Discussion should probably be the first step. But it's unlikely to get you very far in my experience.

After that, maybe consider moving the unwashed items to a bucket somewhere. And if they start to smell, move them outside.

This is very much a 'student' thing. I've shared a place with someone who didn't wash his clothes or bedding in three years, collected cupboards full of coffee jars ('to be recycled') and used every concave surface as an ashtray. I think such people do usually improve over time, but we're talking years rather than months or days.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 8:47 AM on September 29, 2009

I'm a recovering slob that married into clean dishes and would only be mildly remorseful over my own week-old dishes, but under roommate rules you can't tie up the sink so other people can't use it. I say dirty dishes go into a plastic tub in his room after 24 hours, and maybe you should keep your own clean dishes in your room - as big as a pain in the ass as that is, it doesn't sound like you'll have to do it too much longer - so he has no fallback.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:48 AM on September 29, 2009

Do you really want some kind of time answer? Or do you want us to share your frustration with your roommate(s)?
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:50 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

After you're done eating, or when Mr. Llama cleans them for you, whichever happens first.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:53 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One or two dishes can be left overnight. But if it's the whole mess of cooking a meal and then many dishes, do it immediately before it stinks, looks bad, or becomes difficult to clean.
If you have to clean up their mess to be able to comfortably make breakfast in the morning, it's time to crack skulls.
The kitchen is a shared space and food waste is gross, smelly, and hazardous. It needs to be cleaned. Zero tolerance.
posted by Jon-o at 9:04 AM on September 29, 2009

Response by poster: All - thanks for sharing your thoughts and suggestions. This has been super helpful! I didn't think most people were as strict as <2>
Obscure Reference Do you really want some kind of time answer? Or do you want us to share your frustration with your roommate(s)?

I do really want time answers. What I did not mention, is that I was physically abused by one of my parents if I left a dish in the sink, even for a couple of hours. I feel like my idea of "normal time" has been skewed because of this, so I don't really know what other people find reasonable, as my own habits are definitely related to what I experienced as a kid. I don't want to be dogmatic about these things for other people, but I don't want to put up with stuff that may be out of the ordinary for these kinds of habits.
posted by raztaj at 9:09 AM on September 29, 2009

Best answer: There is no normal for dishes, only that which is mutually agreed on by all parties. By not setting out rules at move-in you've let the status quo become implicitly agreed upon. You need to change the unwritten contract between roommates, which means you need to have a House Discussion. He's within his rights to not want to change his behavior; if not, emilyw's solution is perfect, mainly because it makes him responsible for his own mess rather than forcing you, the clean roommates, to become the dish police, which will poison the air.
posted by PercussivePaul at 9:10 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: oops, html fail.

that first part meant to read as: " strict as <24 hours, or before going to bed--interesting...!"
posted by raztaj at 9:10 AM on September 29, 2009

Best answer: The previous answers are giving you personal standards (which I tend to agree with.)

The answer is, reasonable is whatever you agree on. In some houses dishes are washed immediately. In some, they are left for a long time. It has to do with the comfort level and hygiene standards of the household.

If all you are asking for is a bunch of random people on the internet to agree with you, so that you can show it to your roommate, he's not going to care. What you need to do is to come to an agreement, or separate.

ps your roommate is a disgusting slob
posted by ActingTheGoat at 9:21 AM on September 29, 2009

No one should be leaving dishes overnight.

Sometimes, a (cooking pan) dish may need to soak overnight in order to get it clean.

A week is way too long. I might be as flexible as a couple of days if its just a glass and a plate (ie: don't waste the water to just do one or two easy things if you know more are coming) but a sink full of dishes sitting for several days is a health hazard.

That being said, at my house its normal for a few dishes to go a couple of days in the sink, but we're a family, not roommates, and then the rules are ... different.
posted by anastasiav at 9:23 AM on September 29, 2009

Best answer: Roommate issues are difficult, especially when it comes to housework. My own philosophy is, people have different levels of tolerance, and if something is bugging you before it bugs the other person, then it's more your problem than the other's and you should take care of things to suit your own more stringent requirements of cleanliness.

That said, I have lived in houses which were the center of the known universe for my circle of friends, and it was nearly impossible to keep the kitchen clean because of the sheer number of people coming over all the time. We would have fits and starts of non-washing followed by a month or two of fastidious washing, followed by lazy rebellion, and it sucked nearly all the time.

I've also lived in houses where my own relatively slovenly ways were days more mess than the others could tolerate and the others always did the dishes. This left me with (in my opinion) more egregious chores such as toilets and bathtubs, which at the time felt like a fair tradeoff, until it had been months and months of me scrubbing and scrubbing bathrooms every week and they only did 15 minutes of dishes every night.

Now that I'm in my 40s, I realize that keeping a shared living space clean is part of everyone's life, and that it makes the most sense to just try to load/unload the dishwasher regularly and to do at least a drainboard's worth of dishes every evening. If those things don't happen, the place quickly becomes unlivable. Maturity, for the win.

Sorry to hear about your abusive parents. I hope you can work beyond that and into a congenial, adult attitude toward keeping the kitchen clean.
posted by hippybear at 9:25 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh my god,

In my experience with roomates it was a constant marathon to see which one of us was going to break first. I clean the dishes probably once or twice a day, if the sink is full etc. I gets really annoying to get tap access / sink access otherwise and you use the sink for lots of food-prep / hand washing reasons.

But yeah, roomates will leave you with a sink full while they are away for a week. Or maybe they'll even be there for that week.
posted by Napierzaza at 9:25 AM on September 29, 2009

If we don't wash our dishes before bedtime, we'll get bugs.

Hence, we do our dishes before bedtime.

But I understand college roommates - I lived in a house with seven roommates in college, five girls, two guys. Almost everyone in the house was a slob, but EVERYONE claimed to be the only one who did any cleaning.

I went home for the summer, and came back 1x a month or so. The last time I came back, I found my pots and pans in the sink with mold floating on top of the water. I threw those dishes out and vowed never to have more than one roommate again.

(I broke that vow, unfortunately.)
posted by pinky at 9:27 AM on September 29, 2009

I don't want to put up with stuff that may be out of the ordinary for these kinds of habits.

If it bothers you (and it appears it does) it doesn't matter if it's out of the ordinary. As it turns out, it's not. I understand you don't want to be like your parents and that on some level, you can appreciate your roommate's reluctance but living with others means these things need to be discussed. No one needs to feel abused in the discussion, however. You just need a consensus.
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:34 AM on September 29, 2009

24 hours, and even that's pushing it. I leave breakfast dishes to sit until after work (though I always rinse them) and I wash those before starting dinner. Dinner dishes get washed after I eat.

Still, most people would agree to 2 days at a max. Bugs are everywhere and suddenly they can appear in your kitchen and never go away. It only takes one!

Also, your roommate is a disgusting slob.
posted by caveat at 9:38 AM on September 29, 2009

Best answer: 24 hours. Dirty roommate dishes smell bad, look nasty, the dishes are unavailable for use, and the sink is unavailable for use.
posted by theora55 at 9:43 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

The sink should be empty every night. Every. Single. Night. The whole "it needs to soak"? Bullshit. It needs to be scrubbed, is what it needs.

And it, I mean the sink itself, should be clean. Because there is nothing easier to clean than a fucking sink.

And I say this as a man who will cheerfully go six months without vacuuming and who rarely voluntarily empties an ashtray. Bugs in the kitchen suck. It doesn't take ten minutes to do a whole pile of dishes. Your roommate is a lazy slob.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:09 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

They should be cleaned right before it pisses off any roommate, whatever that time is, but not longer than 48 hours.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:20 AM on September 29, 2009

I think BitterOldPunk said it best, so I'm not even going to write my own spiel:

The sink should be empty every night. Every. Single. Night. The whole "it needs to soak"? Bullshit. It needs to be scrubbed, is what it needs.

And it, I mean the sink itself, should be clean. Because there is nothing easier to clean than a fucking sink...

...It doesn't take ten minutes to do a whole pile of dishes. Your roommate is a lazy slob.

posted by tristeza at 10:24 AM on September 29, 2009

Best answer: Well, even though this isn't exactly what you asked, I'm going to throw this out as a solution to your problem. While, "how long is it ok to leave dishes in the sink" is a perfectly valid question, clearly, you and your roommates already disagree on the answer to that question, and no arithmetic approach to same seems likely to leave the parties satisfied. What are you going to do? Average the answers? Take the median or mode amongst your roommates preferences?

When I had a big problem with this and I was living with four dudes, a friend proposed a solution that he read about in Vice that served us well for years, after all sorts of discussions like the one you are having failed, and other approaches like "only have one fork" or "put the dish on someone's desk" failed as well. People think Vice is just some dumb hipster magazine with funny fashion captions, but its actually a treasure trove of useful 'Hints from Helga' about keeping a clean & liveable house & home.

What you do is you get all the roommates to agree to this system and its not like accusing anyone of having a gross basic setting for how long is ok or anything like that. The system is simple: everyone takes a turn doing the dishes. At any given time, it is a certain person's job to clean all the dishes. No matter how many dishes there are. After all the dishes are done, it is the next roommate's turn to do all the dishes.

"But wait!" you may be thinking. "What if one of the roommates just eats a bowl of cereal and rinses out his bowl and spoon! That shouldn't count for moving the turns ahead!" That, my friend, is a feature, not a bug. The idea is to encourage everyone to keep you at "Dishbox Zero", to paraphrase Merlin Mann. If everyone always did this, there would be no dishes in the sink ever. Creating an incentive to swoop in and clean the minimal amount of dishes keeps the sink empty.

We added a small modification: if you make a huge mess from cooking a giant feast or something, you/your dinner guests have to clean that stuff up. Usually that involved all the roommates so it wasn't that big of a deal. The creeping mess of roommate dishes comes, in my experience, from someone being like, "I gotta run, I'll just throw this one plate/bowl/glass in the sink and deal with it later." Then the same thing happens three times. Now you have a pile of dishes. So the next person who comes along is like "aggghh there's too many dishes in here already, throwing this one fork in here isn't gonna make a difference, plus, this isn't my mess so I'm not going to deal with it." It's a Tragedy of the Common Room.

All you need to implement this system, besides agreement on the principles from the roommates, is a way to keep track of who's turn it is. We took a paper plate and cut out a construction paper arrow and affixed it to the plate, divided the plate into labeled sections for each roommate/'dude who was just gonna be staying on the couch for a bit' and hung it near the sink. When its on you, you have to do ALL the dishes, no matter how few or numerous they may be. Then you get to move the arrow to the next guy and you are dishclean-free until it gets back to you.

This first-grade construction paper thing seems a bit ridiculous in a house full of grown men with jobs that require them to do complicated things on schedules and so forth, but worked and it made the kitchen not reek all the time.

The above answers about "it only takes ten minutes"/"a sink is easy to clean" relies on your roommate's interest in cleanliness to conquer their interest in laziness. That has clearly already failed in your house. The Vice System puts their interest in laziness above everything: no one wants to do more than the absolute minimum of dishes. As a side-effect, you end up with a clean sink.
posted by jeb at 10:58 AM on September 29, 2009 [12 favorites]

I live with my family, not roommates...but...well...sometimes the handwashing doesn't get done for a couple of days. Or three. Usually not four. (We've got a dishwasher, though, and if you can just run it every night and empty it the next morning, it makes a big difference on being able to keep up with the dishes!)

(Am I embarrassed by this? Yes. This is where anonymous comments would be really nice. But you wanted to know about standards, and not everyone gets everything cleaned immediately, despite good intentions.)
posted by leahwrenn at 12:34 PM on September 29, 2009

Best answer: We had a rule with my roommates: You never have to wash dishes, but you are not allowed to leave them in any public space (kitchen or living room). You have to keep them in your room. If you leave any dirty dishes out, your punishment is that you have to put away any clean ones that have to been left on the drying rack (and wash your own).

It's an odd rule, but it worked. That was the only rule in the house, and it made everyone happy.

On a related note, I've never understood the idea of leaving dishes in the sink. It makes it impossible for anyone else to wash their dishes.

Personally if dirty dishes were left out more than 24 hours at my place, I would put them in the persons room, or just throw them out. Make sure you have your own clean dishes.
posted by blue_beetle at 1:27 PM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also, in my home growing up, dishes were always done and put away before bed. And the dishes weren't "done" until the counter and sink were cleaned and wiped. I love my parents for enforcing this, now that I'm on my own.
posted by blue_beetle at 1:28 PM on September 29, 2009

Oh and one more thing. Dishwashers can often be found for surprisingly cheap on craigslist. My life got so much better once I got a dishwasher. All these problems simply go away. (well, with minimal effort - you still need to load and run the dishwasher - but compared to washing it's oh so easy.) Give it some thought.
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:22 PM on September 29, 2009

24 hours. They should be done within 2 hours if any of the following applies:

1. you are out of clean dishes of a certain variety

2. you have a pest issue

3. the sink is full

Also, ew to keeping dishes in his room. I had a roommate who did that and i got so tired of going to her room to fetch dirty dishes when the cabinets were empty that I started keeping my own personal stash of (clean and immediately washed after use) dishes in my room so she couldn't hoard as much.
posted by WeekendJen at 2:24 PM on September 29, 2009

At work, a communal sink, if dishes are left there at the end of the day, I throw them in the trash. I don't care whose they are, they go in the trash, when we have no more dishes at work, there will be no problem.
posted by HuronBob at 2:54 PM on September 29, 2009

Best answer: There are only a few topics on which I consider myself an expert and can pontificate with some degree of confidence. At the top of the list is cohabitation. 63 different roommates in 27 different living arrangements, multiple countries, multiple ethnicities, etc. So I give you the benefit of my vast experience of dealing with the kitchen/dishes issue.

There is no "solution" to this problem.

The problem stems from different cultural values, personality, level of maturity, degree of empathy and attitudes held by those involved. Clinical points like "how long does it take for food to rot" and "dirty dishes attract pests" are generally secondary. One party employs them, but the other party doesn't care about those things as much. The symptoms of the underlying problem/issue simply manifest in dishes being left in the sink a long time. It doesn't really matter what the median or the mode or general cultural expectations are. They vary so widely, and the reasons for holding to one or the other is rooted in subjective preference, anyway.

The best thing you can do, in my experience, is to deal with the symptoms by having, as was mentioned above, a "Household Discussion" where, regardless of whether your roommate understands why it's disgusting to you, an expectation is communicated, agreed upon and established as a household rule. With the understanding, of course, that there will be some penalty for failure to follow the rule (either his rent goes up by some amount to compensate his roommates for picking up his slack or he needs to find a new place to live).

Then, hold him accountable. Do it all in the spirit of resolving a problem, rather than criticizing your roommate for slovenly and disrespectful habits, but realize this probably won't prevent him from getting his feelings hurt and blaming you for being unreasonable/anal retentive. Such is cohabitation. Such is life.

Now, don't get me started about how some people use a filthy, germ-soaked sponge to wash their dishes or a filthy tea towel to dry them. Or how some Britishers intentionally leave soap suds on their dishes as they drain dry, or how some Dutch insist on a scalding hot water bath rinse, or how some Korean women find your presence in their kitchen to be somewhat less welcome than a cockroach, regardless of how you wash the dishes.
posted by darkstar at 4:03 PM on September 29, 2009

How about -- money?

I pay my 16-year-old daughter $22/week solely to wash the dishes -- not as allowance or for any other chores or responsibilities -- $10/week to have the kitchen clean when I get home M-Th and $12/week for having it clean by 5pm F-Sun. She likes money and I like to not do dishes, so it's great. It's awesome, actually.

Maybe -- assuming you are willing -- you might propose this as a contingency plan. If your roommates don't stick to whatever adult sharing of responsibilities you all agree to first -- they've hired you as house dishwasher. If you don't mind doing dishes, but are just bothered by the injustice of cleaning up or living in filth not your own, this could work for you.
posted by Methylviolet at 9:48 PM on September 29, 2009

My general feeling is that if you have roommates, you should do dishes preferably immediately or soon after eating, by the end of the day if that's not possible for some reason, and if and only if they need to soak overnight, then the next day is acceptable.

But I've lived with people who've left dishes out for months before cleaning them (yay, student flatting!) so it could be worse. That said, I feel your pain and roomie is certainly pretty inconsiderate. He can leave his dishes out for weeks at a time when he lives by himself.
posted by lwb at 3:04 AM on September 30, 2009

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