6 Tips to Reduce Stress from the Mess That Cooking Makes

updated Sep 20, 2022
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(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

True confession: I avoid certain recipes because of the messes they create, which in my world means anything fried or anything that demands the use of a cast iron skillet. So no matter how amazing a recipe looks, the extra work of dealing with hot oil or a seasoned skillet is often enough to make me pass. And I doubt I’m alone here.

Of course, we all know spills, splatters, and funky smells are bound to occur when you cook at home, no matter how meticulous and neat you try to be; it’s part of the experience. But I’ll venture to say we also all have our “mess” limits when it comes to the kitchen — whether they land low (dirty dishes) or high (cleaning out a deep fryer) on the effort scale.

But as with all things that cause dread, the solution lies not in avoidance, but action (and maybe a Google search). And while you cannot prevent the lingering smell of fish or grease-lacquered pans, with the right tools and the right approach, you sure can prepare for them.

So it’s time to get over fears around cleanup. With the following tips, we can make messes go from disaster to no big deal.

1. Arm yourself.

As we said, messes will happen, so make sure you have everything you need to make cleanup quick and easy. And even enjoyable! That means having a Dustbuster or vacuum, broom, and yes, a fire extinguisher at the ready and in an easily accessible place — not on the top shelf in the upstairs closet. It also means having the right kind of sponges and brushes for different types of pots and pans.

You’ll also need non-chemical cleaning sprays that let you clean as you go (and smell good); storage containers for leftovers, because putting away those odd bits and ends is a part of the whole clean-up equation; and even something to play music so you can whistle (and sing!) while you work. Here’s a quick list of essential items to get you started.

2. Clean while you cook.

A huge pile of dirty dishes can be a very overwhelming sight, as well as an overwhelming task. With all the time and energy it takes to make a meal, no one really wants to then spend another hour or so dealing with the messy aftermath. For that reason, always start with an empty sink and an empty dishwasher. Then, get in the habit of cleaning while you cook. Or better yet, reusing bowls, pots, and pans as much as possible — rinse, reuse, and reduce that mess.

3. Go green when you clean.

To safely clean while you cook, make sure you use non-chemical cleaners. That way, you can spray and wipe and wash all while you prep and cut and baste, without mixing bleach with your button mushrooms. Here are some DIY, all-natural cleaner solutions that will guarantee your kitchen stays clean and your chicken stays clear of Clorox.

4. Change the aroma.

If lingering odors — oil, fish, smoke — keep you from cooking certain dishes, you have a few options: Open the window and close the doors to other rooms in the house; fill a small spray bottle with water and lavender oil or fresh lemon juice, and then spritz the air before, during, and after your cooking adventures; or boil some cinnamon (or make one of these cinnamon-filled


5. Be aware of special instructions.

Certain kitchen tools require special handling, like polishing silver or copper pots and cleaning cast iron skillets, glass electric stovetops, burnt stains on enamel cookware, and stainless steel pots and pans. But just because they need to be cleaned in a specific way doesn’t mean you should avoid using them. Just use this master list of tips and instructions to keep everything in tip-top shape, including what to clean by hand and what to never put in the dishwasher.

6. Take a post-meal moment.

Whether it is Thanksgiving or just a typical Thursday, give yourself some time to relax and enjoy your meal before cleaning the dishes. Yes, you may have a mess, but by now you have everything you need to make the cleanup a bit more manageable. Just remember to organize the dishes somewhere other than the sink so you have full use of it when it comes time for water and soap; soak any crusty pots, pans, and dishes while you sit and eat; and be clear on whether you want help from guests or wish to clean on your own.

What kind of mess prevents you from trying a recipe? Is it worth overcoming? Or does just a full-on fear of mess keep you out of the kitchen altogether?