Doing the Dishes

We all have some chore we profoundly dislike. For me, it's all things related to dishes. I don't like scrubbing them, and I don't like emptying the dishwasher either. Oh, I know life is better than the days when, in one of my old magazines, an ad showed a woman with a stack of roughly 1000 dishes, and reported that this is how many she had to wash by hand each month. Drowning in DishesStill, whenever we dislike something, we have a tendency to massively overestimate how much time it takes. I have timed myself, and I know I spend far less than an hour each week on dish-related chores (unless I've had a huge dinner party or something that involves fondue caked on to multiple pans). But because it happens in small spurts often, it feels like it takes more time than it does. I suspect this is why, in one 1998-1999 study, women estimated they spent 5.5 hours per week doing dishes, when their time diaries showed they spent 1.1.

So let's say we hate doing dishes. What can be done about it? The usual 3-part rubric is to ignore, minimize or outsource it.

Ignore. An underutilized option, but you can always just let them pile up. Either they'll stay piled up, or some other family member or household visitor will lose the game of kitchen chicken and do them.

Minimize. Another option is to use fewer dishes. Make one-pot meals. Don't use serving dishes. Cook stuff that comes off easily. Use paper plates on occasion (and write a check to your favorite environmental charity as atonement). Or you could make it feel like the time is going faster by using some high-end Caldrea-type dish soap that smells so nice it's like aromatherapy instead of a chore.

Outsource. This is harder to pull off in the usual sense of outsourcing, unless you have a housekeeper who's there every day, which is far outside the realm of most of our experience. But I'm already working on making dish chores something my kids can do. This morning I decided to teach Jasper (who will be 4 in May) how to empty the silverware from the dishwasher. He was so excited to be a helper, and managed to do a reasonable job (the concept of turning all the forks the same way in the drawer will be taught another day, as will the difference between a soup spoon and a teaspoon, which I'm not sure I entirely grasp either). He also handed me the plates and bowls so I could put them in the cupboard, which meant I didn't have to keep bending over. We're still a few years from this being his chore, but hey, it's a start!

What chore do you dislike most? How have you ignored, minimized or outsourced it?

flickr image courtesy lscp

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24 Responses to Doing the Dishes


  1. Hey Laura! I just wrote a post recently about how I never wanted to do laundry again. I negotiated to have my husband do all of the laundry if I do all of the cooking. The post is here: http://www.clutterdietblog.com/2011/01/never-do-laundry-again.html

    I agree about overestimating time– I do always tell our readers to time themselves because tasks we dread always seem to take longer. We found a typical load of laundry often takes only 3 minutes to fold but feels like 10. 🙂

    – Lorie

    • @Lorie- or feels like 10 hours if the socks are really hard to match 🙂 Sounds like you guys figured out a good split on the comparative advantage front. Each party does the thing he/she hates least, or is just slightly better at than other things.

  2. Denise R says:

    As I prepare to return to full-time work (outside the home) I am getting my family more involved in housework.

    The chore I hated most was folding the laundry b/c I was always alone, so now I carry it up to my bedroom and dump it on the bed and call my kids to fold it. My 4-year-old folds pants. My 8 year-old folds his own shirts and pants. Everyone grabs their own socks and underwear (we don’t fold these) and races back to their rooms, then comes back to fold some more items. I fold the adult clothes. It gets done so quickly and we are always laughing.

    We all empty the dishwasher together too. I rearranged my cabinets so the glasses, dishes and plastic containers are in different spots, so no one is in each other’s way. (everything used to be in one cabinet that only my husband or I could reach)

    When we are having a party or playdate I have my kids help cut up the fruit and cheese that we serve. Melon can easily be cut with a butter knife. At dinnertime they peel carrots too, but recently I’ve been buying frozen, as I feel like I am constantly cutting and chopping. Sometimes I prepare the week’s veggies on Sunday, so I only chop one day.

    I had groceries delivered for the first time and it was a pleasure. 20 minutes online and 10 minutes to put it all away! As I ordered enough food for 2 weeks I saved 90+ minutes of shopping time, 20 minutes of putting-away time and I got to spend the time with my children who are home this week. I figure I also saved money on the impulse buys I avoided too. Well worth the tip (I got a coupon for 60 days of free shipping)

    Some people think I work my boys too hard, but they always seem to be smiling when we are spending chore time together, and I want them to know what it takes to keep a house running.

    • @Denise – congrats on the 90+ minutes saved on groceries! I’m guessing it’s not long before you start buying your veggies pre-chopped, too 🙂 Yes, kids are a vastly underutilized resource when it comes to helping out around the house. We are slowly getting better on this, and I think that laundry folding is the next frontier.

  3. I don’t mind doing the dishes so much–it’s the never-endingness of it that gets to me. But now that my 11 and 13 year olds empty and reload the dishwasher at least once a day, it’s much more manageable even though I still end up washing the pots and pans and large dishes by hand myself.

    Also, I have them put away their own laundry. I don’t mind doing the laundry, and I rather enjoy folding, but I hate putting away. The boys do that for themselves now.

    Other than that? Floors. I don’t love vacuuming OR mopping. We have a cleaning person who comes a few hours a month and does both, and I usually just have one of the older boys run the vacuum on the weekend to touch up.

    Having older kids is great 🙂

    • @Meagan – I know! I like babies, but I’m also really looking forward to seeing what my kids are capable of years hence. My 3-year-old is already carrying the silverware to the table which I’m hoping means by age 12 he’ll do everything food related (ha ha… but wouldn’t it be great?)

  4. Jamie says:

    I thought of you this weekend when I read the NYT magazine. Did you see the Cooking With Dexter column? The writer is talking about an epochal shift in the hours expected of employees, how he just can’t spend the hours at home that his own father did. Curious about your response. (I’m wondering if increased commute times are part of the issue.)

    • @Jamie – increased commute times may be part of the problem, as is technology that makes people think folks are available whenever. But if you look at time diary studies, fathers today spend vastly more time with their children than they did a generation ago. They also spend more time on housework. So I don’t know if they’re spending less time at home or not, but they’re definitely doing a lot more with the hours they are home. That particular writer may not feel like he has enough time but it is very hard to generalize from one person’s experience to society at large; as with time spent washing dishes we are prone to fuzzy impressions.

  5. Jamie says:

    I do also have a comment that’s more directly related to the topic of this post (the dishes/cooking connection prompted that first comment). I have 5 kids, which means a lot of housework and also a lot of potential help. It’s useful for me to ask myself if I need something to be done to my standards or if I just want it off my plate. For instance, my boys don’t deep-clean bathrooms very well, but they can do a reasonable job with a quick wipedown. So the bathrooms get a quick wipedown Monday through Saturday on a predictable rotation, which cuts way down on the amount of deep-cleaning that needs to happen.

    It also helps me to think explicitly about how I’m going to front-load the work. If I walk a boy through mopping the floor three times, then he should be good to go. That makes for a potentially frustrating effort, but it’s finite and it means less mopping for me for years to come. (Mopping is one of my most dreaded household chores.) On the other hand, if I give him directions and leave him to it, it’s likely to frustrate us both.

  6. Sarah says:

    I hate grocery shopping! We were currently using 2-4 stores on a regular basis -a huge time suck. Yet with some special dietary requirements and my wish to be frugal, I’m not willing to just stick to 1 store. My recent solution? I’ve started meal planning and buying in bulk at each store I visit (some of them I can visit just once a month now). So with my 2-4 week meal plan, I’ve discovered that I only need to shop 2 or 3 times a month, I am feeding my family healthier foods, and I’m actually saving money, not to mention the time I save.

  7. @Lorie: I love the idea of outsourcing the chores you hate most by trading them off with other family members, because everyone hates different chores. I don’t mind washing dishes or folding laundry, because I can listen to the radio while doing them, but I hate vacuuming because of the noise and because the taller you are, the more backbreaking it is (I’m 5’8″, and my 6’1″ brother has been known to combine the wands from 2 different vacuum cleaners just to make one long enough so he doesn’t have to bend over so much), so that’s what I’d most like to outsource. @Laura: It also lightens the dishwashing load if each family member has their own personal mug and/or glass they just keep rinsing out and re-using all day long, rather than dirtying multiple mugs and glasses per person per day. Obviously you can’t do this with milk, but it works fine for coffee, tea, water, juice, etc. Also, if you’re washing dishes by hand, the sooner you put pots in the sink to soak, and the hotter the water you use to soak, wash, AND rinse them, the less you’ll have to scrub them and the faster they’ll dry. For best results the water needs to be scalding hot, so wearing rubber gloves will not only save your skin, it will save you time. And if you put all the plates and silverware in a dishpan of hot, soapy water to soak immediately after you clear them from the table, by the time you’ve put away the leftovers, the food remains will have softened so much, you’ll hardly need any elbow grease at all to scrub them clean. The one exception is that anything that’s had milk or cream in it will be easier to get clean if you soak it in COLD water before you wash it with hot, soapy water. (I learned this from my dad, who spent his childhood summers on a dairy farm.) And you should always wash the glasses first, when the wash water’s cleanest, so they don’t get streaky. (I learned the rest from my grandmother and from friends in England, all of whom, never having had dishwashers, have honed hand-washing to a science.)

  8. Jason says:

    I actually find that backing up dishes, especially in a small kitchen area, ends up dropping off the performance of other kitchen tasks. In my experience, it’s best if you don’t let the dirty dishes stack up at all, as they rob space for other food prep tasks, generally making other things take longer. Rather than doing things as a “batch”, you do them as a “flow”. It’s also important to run the dishwasher as many times as is required to keep things clean, which may be multiple times a day.

    Time wasters with the dishwasher:
    – Rinsing dishes prior to putting them in. This is really unnecessary, especially with any machine made in the last 20 years. Generally, scrape anything off and you are good to go.
    – Using a poorly performing soap. Check out whatever Consumer Reports rates the highest and buy it. Otherwise you have to re-wash and stuff never gets clean. We use the Electrasol (Finsh) tablets with the ball in them and everything is fantastically clean.
    – If you can minimize enough, the dishwasher can also be the storage for your plates. If you can’t fit everything in there, then reorganize your cabinet so the most commonly used stuff is right next to or above the dishwasher. If you have to walk around a lot when emptying the dishwasher, then something is very wrong. Also keep in mind that the silverware basket is removable and can easily be taken with you to the silverware drawer.

    Other process improvements:
    – When clearing the dishes from the table, minimize trips by putting all the scrapings onto one dish/container and stacking everything up. Then take the whole pile with you and load it into the dishwasher.
    – Make a meal plan for the week, and build in “leftover nights” or “no cook nights”. If you have two nights of leftovers and one night of sandwiches, you have three less nights where pots and pans are used. Likely you just use the microwave. Add in one night of take out / delivery and you only use pots and pans two nights.
    – If you have a grill, use it all year round. There’s no clean up required at all, just scraping off the grate. There are many, many wonderful grilled foods that can be made.

    We also don’t use serving dishes at any time. We just put a trivet on the table and bring out the pan/pot to the table. Serving dishes are reserved for big holiday meals.

    We also generally don’t buy anything that isn’t dishwasher safe. I extend this idea to clothing, as well — if it’s “dry clean only” or “hand wash”, it’s not worth buying.

    • @Jason- I like the leftover night idea. By re-using cups and having minimal serving dishes we do hold ourselves to a lot fewer dishes than could be piling up.

  9. Jason says:

    For the people who hand wash and hate dishes, I heartily suggest that you look into purchasing a portable dishwasher to automate this task. The cost is relatively modest ($3-500), it uses less water and energy than hand washing and the dishes come out fully sanitized.

  10. Denise R says:

    @Jamie-I agree with teaching your kids up front how to do a task for the first few times. It saves in the end. It also follows with Laura’s recent post of ‘good enough vs. perfection.’ Sometimes good enough is all you really need.
    @Sarah-a meal plan is such a great timesaver; having one has now allowed me to order my groceries online as they save my lists, so each 2 week block of meals will have it’s own. I think they are underestimated. A bit of work at the beginning saves so much time in the long run.
    @Laura-your kids will cook when they get older, since you already bake with them now. A good series to look into when they are a bit older is the “Kids Dish” collection. There are books for Italian, Chinese, desserts etc. They are kid-friendly, use mostly basic ingredients and give a time and difficulty level for each recipe. My 8-year-old has made many of them and uses them when he wants to cook dinner for us. (with my help–which is mostly just putting the food in the oven)

    • A meal plan has never worked very well for us because our schedules can be variable (in terms of who is home for dinner on any given night). We instead do usually pretty basic combos and always have certain things in the house: pasta, sauce and Italian sausage, for instance. Hamburgers and hot dogs for Sunday nights. Microwave rice and frozen veggies, and then some other protein. A frozen pizza, which we can chop extra veggies on to.

  11. Jeremy says:

    We’ve got three kids and no dishwasher, so the dishes really stack up quickly. I do them at least once a day, and my wife usually twice. I’ve found that the difference between misery and happiness while doing them is music — if nobody pesters me, and I can listen to good music, it’s “me” time.

    • @Jeremy- isn’t it funny how chores can become me time? I’ve heard the same thing for commutes. And the shower.

  12. Judy says:

    We send the laundry out– it makes a huge difference. It all comes back nicely folded and I feel like putting it all away at once saves time.

    My main tip on the dishes, if you have a dishwasher (and why oh why is my husband not on board with this)– DO NOT FEEL GUILTY ABOUT RUNNING THE DISHWASHER. If you have completed a meal, and the dishwasher is 1/2-2/3 full and you know the next meal (say dinner), will put you over the top— RUN THE DARN DISHWASHER. For the next meal, it is so much easier to clear and cleanup if you have capacity in the dishwasher for all the stuff!

  13. WG says:

    I rarely do dishes — when they must be hand-washed, my husband is generally the one who does them. And I recently outsourced all the dinner clean-up duty to my two oldest children. On the rare night when I do have to clean the kitchen, I do so while listening to an audiobook on my iPod. Chick lit, preferably — makes many mundane tasks more enjoyable.

  14. aurin says:

    make it fun and much easier; wash up what is possible while making food, always wash immediately and use a brush which has soap inside, try just a slow running waterstream instead of bucket or machine, and finally build a finnish dishwashing cupboard:

    place a wire rack above the kitchen sink, thus you simply put all dishes, cups and cutlery to dry and stay in the same place, saves half the work and makes more space in the kitchen!

    The kitchen sink should reach to the wall, and absolutely be double, for having a separate area for meat or vegetable cleaning, thus also wide enough for having the drying cupboard above

    http://www.skimbacohome.com/2010/08/scandinavian-kitchen/

  15. Here’s a trick I learned from a book I read way back when called Confessions of an Organized Homemaker: do the dishes before you eat dinner. That is, wash everything that can be washed before sitting down to eat, especially pots and pans if you’ve already removed the food from them into serving dishes. I find I usually have a few minutes to spare waiting for one dish or another to be done so I fill up the sink and get started. It makes clean up that much easier. Other tricks: while doing pre-dinner dishes have a glass of wine, turn on Katie Couric or talk to your kids about their day, anything to get your mind off what you’re doing.

    As for other household chores: I would happily do laundry every day of the week but I hate grocery shopping. I do as much grocery shopping as I possibly can online and have it delivered – it’s heaven!

    Michelle

    • @Michelle- I have been trying to get in the habit of getting groceries delivered and do it from time to time. It’s good for big things since here in NYC it sucks to tote huge bags around…

  16. Tonya says:

    I outsource folding laundry. It’s the chore I hate the most. Many people hire a biweekly cleaning service, but I never see anyone recommending hiring those same people to fold! Fluff and fold services are way too expensive in suburbia — a typical load would have cost $15 -$20, and my family of 5 generates about 6 loads every two weeks. When I asked our cleaning lady, who charges $30/hr, she was willing to fold clothes at the same rate. She can fold two large loads in half an hour. Our cost to have her fold the majority of our laundry runs $90-$120 a month. I just run the loads the day before and the day she comes, and let them sit in baskets for a day.

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