8 Tips for Dealing with a Bigger-than-Usual Pile of Dishes

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

Most of us have a weeknight dishwashing routine that’s pretty manageable: Rinse (or not) some plates and silverware, throw them into the dishwasher, and wash the handful of pots, pans, and other utensils you used for food prep. If you’re lucky, you have a partner to help dry the dishes and put them away to complete the task.

When it comes to the holidays, though, we use way more pots, pans, dishes, and silverware than ever, and facing that pile of dirty dishes can be daunting, to say the least. Truth: It may require a different cleaning M.O. than you use in your everyday cleanup. Here’s what you should do.

1. Always be soaking.

ABS, to industry folks, is like a cardinal rule of bulk dishwashing. And you can do it bit by bit. Once you finish prep and get your food onto serving dishes — but before you sit down for the meal — take a minute to fill your sink most of the way with hot water, then pop in the smaller food prep items to soak while you’re eating. (Don’t want to fill your entire sink? Use a large bowl instead.) Quickly fill the bigger pots and pans with hot water and a couple drops of dish soap, too. It’ll make cleaning after the meal that much easier, as that tricky cookware will have had hours to soak.

(Image credit: Faith Durand)

2. Stack when you can.

When you’re clearing the table, make stacks of plates and bowls next to the sink, instead of putting them inside the sink. Stackable dishware will stay in place without taking up too much space while you wash the bulkier, more unwieldy items (like pots and pans or glassware) first and move them out of the way. Plus, it’s easier to wash a bunch of the same items at the same time; you can get a rhythm going. Similarly, on the drying end, don’t put away one dish at a time. It’s just not efficient. Make a stack of plates as you’re drying, or place all the dried items in one area until you move a few at a time back into the cabinet.

(Image credit: KPG Payless2)

3. Create wash and dry zones.

Before your big event, clear your countertops and sink as much as you can: Tuck away extra utensil containers and countertop appliances, and put away extra sponges or scrubbers you may keep in the sink area. The goal is to create as much surface area as you can. Then make it obvious where the dirty dishes go (say, to the left of the sink) and where the clean ones will end up (on a dish towel to the right of the sink). This should be enough of a clue for your guests to know where to put stuff as they help clear the table, and for the kind soul who volunteers to dry.

(Image credit: Piotr Marcinski)

4. Dress the part.

You may not regularly wear gloves, but today’s the day to give them a try — your manicure will thank you. Put on an apron, while you’re at it. Why let food debris and soapy splatters ruin your lovely outfit? Also, consider wearing comfy shoes if you’ll be standing for a while. It’s better for your feet, back, and attitude to do dishes in slippers than in your party heels!

5. Use the dishwasher.

If you’ve got it, use it. Obviously. While we hate telling you to run a not-full dishwasher, you might have to. If you need to run a load before dinner to clean all your prep tools, do it so that it can be emptied and refilled with dinner dishes as soon as you’re done eating. But please, don’t make this a habit, as it’s not super energy-efficient or eco-friendly!

(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

6. Accept help.

Why yes, you can bring your plate to the sink! Of course you can scrub! Please do dry! While I anticipate our commenters will be split on this (many of you have particular cleaning methods you don’t want guests to breach, or strong feelings about relaxing with guests before tackling the mess solo), I’m still going to advise you to accept genuine offers for help. Assign jobs based on what will make life easiest for you. For example, if your dish storage system is totally inscrutable, let a friend wash while you dry and put away. If you’re picky about how things are cleaned, do the washing yourself. Try to eliminate the possibility of error or confusion on your helper’s part.

7. Use trays to put things away.

If you store things in a buffet, bar, or other area of your home besides the kitchen, consider using a tray to move stacks of bowls, plates, or serving items from your drying area to where it’s stored. Only caveat: Use caution with this method when transporting glassware, for obvious reasons!

8. Forgive breakage.

It’s inevitable. Don’t beat yourself up or yell at your spouse or shame your guests. Accept that a plate or wine glass might not survive the night and be graceful about its demise.

Do you have any other tricks for dealing with your massive pile of holiday dishes?