Friday, January 7, 2022

Dirty Dishes

Having spent time around extended family, most of whom are not preppers, I've noticed that the younger generations are lacking in basic skills and  have no idea what to do without access to modern amenities like electricity and clean, running water.

One of the ways this was brought to my attention was cleaning up after a family dinner: the dishwasher was (over)loaded and there were still dishes to be cleaned, so a cousin and I started washing them in the kitchen sink. You'd have thought we were magicians by the way the under-30 crowd was reacting to two old men washing dishes faster, cleaner, and more efficiently than the machine under the counter. Add in the jovial banter and conversation and it was actually a pleasant time. We had twice as many done as the machine before it was finished with its cycle... and ours were cleaner, too.

Washing dishes isn't hard. I grew up doing them by hand, and have not seen a household-grade dishwasher that can match hand-washing for sanitation and cleaning. College and 16 years working in a laboratory gave me plenty of practice cleaning glassware, and when you're using that glassware to measure chemical and biological components, clean and sterile are requirements rather than goals.

My cousin worked in packing plants and kitchens for most of his life and knows how to clean things rapidly and well. Years of camping, most of them in tents or towed campers, taught us how to “rough it” without getting ill from eating off of dirty dishes.

TSHTF isn't always a permanent thing; sometimes you just need to be able to survive a few days, weeks or months until things can get back to “normal”. Consider the following scenarios: a storm has passed and you're without electricity for a week or two; the city has problems with their water plant and issues a “boil order” for the tap water for a week; your dishwasher breaks and the repair parts or replacement unit is on back-order (or stuck on a container ship off the coast of California); you lose your job and have to cut back on expenses like water and electricity bills. 

Here's how to properly clean dishes and cooking utensils without an expensive appliance.


  • Plan your meals to use as few dishes as possible. This is the “Spartan” kitchen philosophy: do more with less and you'll have less to clean, carry, or store. Aim for dining hall trays instead of a full set of dinnerware for each person; one tray is easier to clean than 4-6 plates and bowls. I keep a supply of paper plates and plastic dinnerware in the pantry for ease of clean-up, but that is a finite resource and creates more waste.
  • Plan your menu to reduce leftovers. If everyone cleans their plate, there's less to wash off after the meal. Add a piece of bread to the meal so diners can wipe up gravy or sauces. The cook can use the same trick to get the bottom of their pots and pans ready for washing.
    • Having raised children and served in the Army, I've found that picky eaters lose that attitude when they get hungry enough. 
    • Portion control is important when dealing with hungry people, too. They tend to take more food than they'll eat and that creates more waste to dispose of later.
  • Have your washing equipment ready before the meal and start washing as soon as possible after. Dried food is harder to remove, so get it before it gets to that stage. When camping, Mom would put a pot of water on the stove/fire while we were eating to ensure we had hot water for washing with when the meal was done.


The “3 bucket method” is common and has been used for decades. You don't have to use actual buckets; I've used plastic tubs and double-basin sinks. 

  • Bucket #1 is full of hot, soapy water. As hot as you can stand to put your hands in, and as little soap as you can use while still having suds (foam) on the surface.
  • Bucket #2 is a clean water rinse. After shaking the soapy water off of the dishes, they are dipped into the rinse water to remove the last bits of soap.
  • Bucket #3 is a sanitizing solution. Boiling water works, as will a dilute bleach mixture or one of the commercially available sanitizing mixes. This is an extra step used primarily when dealing with larger groups or when living outdoors. If you're in a house and have basic sanitation in place, it can be skipped.

How it works:

  1. Everybody eats all of the food given them and wipes down their dishes before bringing them to the washing station. A quick pre-rinse with a bit of water doesn't hurt. 
  2. Dishes are washed from the cleanest to the dirtiest, with the greasy pots saved for last. This extends the life of the soapy water. Utensils usually get washed first because they're small and tend to have more places for food residue to hide.
  3. Using a scrubber or sponge, dishes are washed in bucket #1 to get food residue off. They are then given a quick rinse in clean water in bucket #2 before going into the sanitizer if you choose to use one. Air-dry or towel-dry as time and space allows before putting the clean dishes away to deter mold and bacterial growth. 
  4. Once all of the dishes are clean, dispose of the wash water away from your water source and use the rinse water to wash out the buckets for their next use.

My family has the tradition that when we get together for a large meal, the women cook and the men clean up afterwards. For day-to-day life, I generally take care of both for various reasons. I prefer to wash my dishes by hand since it's just the two of us now, we don't create enough dirty dishes to require a dishwasher, and I've never been satisfied with their performance anyway.

No comments:

Post a Comment

The Fine Print

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- Noncommercial- No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

Creative Commons License

Erin Palette is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to