Posted by: Phoebe | June 20, 2010

How to Wash Dishes Efficiently by Hand

This Father’s Day, I’d like to explain the method my father has taught me for washing dishes efficiently. He is good at figuring things out and whatever he sets his mind to do. I think he can wash the dishes by hand in about the same time it takes some people to rinse dishes and load a dishwasher. Efficient hand washing also can use less energy, water, and chemicals than a dishwasher, and is less likely to leave a soap residue on the dishes. (There are arguments about hand vs. machine washing. I believe efficient hand washing is best, but it is also possible to wash efficiently with a good machine.) Some think a dishwasher sanitizes things better, but I think thorough washing, rinsing and air drying takes care of anything you need worry about.

My father demonstrated his method to me in detail, explaining that his method is based on the principle of minimum handling. I can’t say I always follow his method perfectly, usually because I am careless or thinking about something else, but if I do I get done a lot faster.

Before we begin, here are a few notes. First, when it is time to rinse just turn on the warm faucet at medium-strength, letting the water run into the dishwater. Never run the faucet without a dish directly under it; it is a waste of water. You can put cold water in a second sink to rinse, but what with changing the rinse water when it gets too soapy, this probably uses about the same amount of water as careful faucet-rinsing. Second, we use washcloths, scrubby things, and our hands for rubbing the dishes. My opinion is that dish brushes only help with cups. Third, we let dishes air-dry in a metal dish-rack. Hand-drying with a towel is a bother, and probably less sanitary.

  1. Stack the plates by the side of the sink, brushing off chunks of food. Rinse or wet only slightly. We are not washing the dishes here. Put other dishes near the sink, roughly organized by type. Wipe out greasy pots and pans and put water in those with cooked-on food. Place silverware and utensils in the sink and fill it about 1/4 or 1/3 full of hot soapy water, 3-4 inches deep.
  2. Wash and rinse the sharp knives and large utensils first, and place them in the same compartment in the dish rack. Then gather up as many of the dinner knives as fit comfortably in the left hand, and quickly rub the blades with the washcloth in the right hand. Turn them all together in your hand to rub the other side. Rinse them all under warm water, letting the water run into the washing sink and using the fingers of your right hand to brush the water around. Place all the knives together, point down in a compartment of the dish rack. That makes them easy to put away later. Do the same with the forks and spoons together.
  3. Wash and rinse the large flat things, cutting boards and frying pans, and place them on the sides of the dish rack. If they don’t stand up, you can wash a bowl or something to hold them in place, or just wash the plates (next step) and see if they hold them up.
  4. Take the entire stack of plates and lower them into the water. Wash all the plates, just the face of the plate, not the back, and lean them on their side in the same sink. That way they are close at hand when it is time to rinse them, reducing distance of motion. When all the plates are washed, turn the faucet on and rinse a plate front and back, running your hand over the surface to spread the water and feel for any remaining food residue. Place that plate in the rack with your right hand, while reaching for the next plate with your left.  Try to keep a plate under the faucet at all times. Finish all the plates. Now might be a good time to change the dishwater, if you are fastidious like me.

    Rinse with one hand, stack with the other.

  5. Next, take all the breakable bowls and cups and place as many as will comfortably fit inside the sink. Wash them around the lip and inside, roughly dividing the clean ones on one side of the sink and the dirty ones on the other. When they are all washed, turn the faucet on and rinse them all as with the plates. Gently shake the water inside the cup to rinse the inside. Place them inside the dish rack around the plates and inside the cutting boards.

    Just changed the water, now breakables.

  6. Now do the same with the plastic cups, and finally with the larger plastic bowls and pitchers, stacking them on top of the plates and bowls. Your stack may be quite impressive by now!

    Now all the plastics.

  7. Finally, wash and rinse the cooking pots one by one, scrubbing as necessary with a metal or plastic scrubby thing. Run your hand over the surface as before to help rinse. Place them on the rack if you can do so securely, or upside down on top of the stove. Let the water out of the sink and wipe down the counter and faucet.
  8. You are finished! Take a picture of your impressive stack! Don’t forget to practice your efficiency and improve your time.

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Thanks, Baba!



  1. Good post, Phoebe Joy. Washing dishes by hand can be an excellent time for meditation or conversation, too.

    • Thanks Anna! it’s nice sometimes to be able to do something that takes some attention and keeps our hands busy but still leaves us time to think. I guess knitting is like that too.

  2. I appreciate you taking the time to write this up. I’ve been getting heat for doing dishes too slowly, so I’m scouring the internet for methods to improve my efficiency and I’ve found yours most helpful. I have one thought, though: for forks, spoons, and non-sharp knives, like butter knives, it may be better to place them handle down. Just as a doctor washes her entire forearms so that the dirty water runs to her elbows leaving her hands the most sanitary, the dish water would go to the handle which, of course, does not come into contact with food.

    • Thanks for your comment, I’m glad this was helpful to you. I like your suggestion.

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