How (and Why) to Quit Your Dishwasher

Joshu said, “Then you had better wash your bowl.” –Zen story

Be honest: You hate doing the dishes. We all do.

Now that I work from home, you’d think my house would be cleaner than ever. It isn’t. Even I’m surprised. Yes, my house is clean and fairly organized …  but it really seemed cleaner before I quit my day job.

It could be because I’m home all day messing it up. More likely it’s because I’m becoming a pro at shedding the burden of doing it all. It’s easier to prioritize, which means enjoying life more than cleaning it up.

The dishes were another story. Each morning, coffee cups, bowls and smoothie makers littered the counter; the dishwasher was full of clean dishes every other day. A domino effect of dishes that were never done became part of the daily routine. One of those simple – yet maddening – problems.

The decision to quit

When I read how Joshua Becker’s family stopped using a dishwasher, I thought it was going a little too far. Why would anyone choose to live without a dishwasher? What’s next, I wondered? Life without a laundry machine? I decided the concept wasn’t for me.

Fast forward to the dirty dishes dilemma of 2011. Maybe Becker was on to something. Even Leo Babauta wrote about wash your bowl, a  famous Zen story. Could the idea work for us?

I proposed a trial. Mr. Right and the kids thought I was a little nuts, but then agreed to a test: One week without using the dishwasher.

How we started

I knew we had some bad habits to break. My kids (ages 11 and13) were used to getting a new dish for everything. The wash your bowl concept would be easy to forget with cabinets full of dishes, ripe for the picking.

We decided to make it foolproof – everyone could choose one plate, bowl, cup and set of silverware. We each had our own shelf to place our dishes. To make washing easier, I bought a small dish rack and mat from Target. The rest of the dishes were moved to storage or “blocked” with a paper sign. We also taped a “don’t use” sign to the dishwasher to help us remember.

Why this worked

If one of the kids forgot to wash their bowl, they had no other option but to wash it. It took all the nagging out of the trial week. I simply reiterated, “In this house, we wash our bowl as soon as we finish.” After a couple days of the new system, they embraced the idea.

Post trial week

When the trial week ended, we unanimously agreed: Not using the dishwasher was actually better. We each spent less time washing and putting away dishes. The problem of dirty cups and bowls cluttering the counter was solved.

We’ve brought back most of the dishes from storage, but not all. The trial week helped us realize we don’t need as many dishes as before. The dishwasher will still make sense for entertaining or when we have weekend guests.

Quitter talk

  • Will washing our dishes by hand use more – or less – water? I don’t know yet. I’ll be monitoring our water usage and report back in the coming months.
  • Is it safe to wash dishes by hand? Mr. Right was hesitant to try the no dishwasher test for safety reasons. Me? I grew up without a dishwasher and survived just fine. According to this article, dried food on dishes harbors bacteria. Thus the wash your bowl mantra becomes even more important.
  • Does it make sense with younger kids? I don’t think so. Wait until your kids are old enough to wash their own bowls. Otherwise, this idea will probably take more time (but you could still test it for a week!).

Readers, what do you think? Would you ever quit your dishwasher?

If this idea intrigues you, please share it on Facebook or Twitter.

Photo by LadyGuinevere!

Check out Arrows by Melissa Gorzelanczyk, coming January 2016 from Delacorte Press/Random House. Visit her author site here.


1 Jenni June 16, 2011 at 4:42 am

I have been toying with this idea, but haven’t gone there yet. My struggle is containers from lunch. I pack a lunch for both my son and me and everything goes in reusable containers. It is easier to put them in the dishwasher and get new ones… until it is time to unload the dishwasher. Maybe, just maybe, when we return from vacation.

2 Melissa June 20, 2011 at 8:59 am

Hi Jenni,
We switched to glass storage containers, which helped make hand washing easier, in my opinion. There are some pretty inexpensive options now.
Thanks for connecting with me here!

3 Starthrower June 16, 2011 at 7:15 am

This is how we do it at our house. We each have our own set. For the making meals dishes the pots and pans, etc. we have a schedule mom, son, daughter. We cross our name off after we’ve done our day and then we know who’s next. If the dishes pile up, well, the person that has been neglectful has more to do. Washing the dishes means that the entire kitchen is cleaned up, counters, stove,etc. When the dishes are dry they are put away. Then the next person can do their thing.
I have never had a dishwasher, growing up either. This plan works for us. We’re also a fairly relaxed family and accept a messy kitchen every now and then. But for the most part none of us want to let a mess build on our turn 🙂
BTW, when we pull out the guest set, friends are amused. Especially when my son gets up from the table and washes his dishes!!

4 Melissa June 20, 2011 at 8:57 am

That’s a great idea about having a schedule for hand washing the big items. I might have to adopt that! Right now, we all chip in.
I know what you mean about the guest set … my daughter’s friends definitely thought we were “unique.” 🙂

5 Manuel Loigeret June 16, 2011 at 7:36 am

We never had a dishwasher. Then 2 years ago when we moved in our new apartment the previous tenants gave us their old one for almost free. It was nice … and it broke last December. Since then, we have been washing our dishes like before. We don’t have a plan or a strategy. We try to wash dishes as soon as we are finished using them, that’s it. Actually I think I enjoy not hearing the noise of the dishwasher. And also it is really satisfying to do it by yourself.

6 Melissa June 20, 2011 at 8:54 am

Hi Manuel,
I agree, it’s nice to have peace in the house instead of the noisy dishwasher running every other day. Emptying the dishwasher always seemed like such a loud production, too. I do enjoy it when we have guests though. I’d much rather visit than spend time hand washing the dishes.
Have a stellar week!

7 Rachel @ the minimalist mom June 16, 2011 at 8:15 am

We just moved to the UK and I made the transition to washing dishes by hand. So far I’m enjoying it for all the reasons you list above. We haven’t cut down to just one dish set per family member but we’re in a furnished rental and the dishware is limited. We have a toddler and he uses the same bowl every meal. Eventually he will start washing it own his own.

8 Melissa June 20, 2011 at 8:52 am

Hi Rachel,
Excellent! I hope you are enjoying the UK. Your son will be washing his bowl in no time.
Take care,

9 Megan Swicegood June 16, 2011 at 8:33 am

I really love this idea. I’ve been trying to embrace something similar in my household for awhile now, but it’s been a hard habit for us to form.

One safety note: It’s a good idea to use a long handled brush/sponge for glass cups. Sticking your hand down into a glass cup can be dangerous if the glass breaks (7 stitches in my right thumb to prove it). But seriously, people have been washing dishes by hand for centuries, so I think we’ll survive. Like you, I didn’t grow up with a dishwasher and we managed just fine (also didn’t cut my hand open until I was an adult).

10 Melissa June 20, 2011 at 8:51 am

Hi Megan,
Yes, we do have a brush, which is safer and get the dishes cleaner, in my opinion. Thanks for sharing your tip!

11 Alyssa June 16, 2011 at 8:55 am

I do like the idea of focusing on one cup, one plate, etc. I always try to use one cup at a time and re-use it as much as I can. However, you can still use your dishwasher while sticking to that rule; you just won’t use it as much. I imagine that hand washing all your pots, pans, etc from cooking will add up to more water than a dishwasher and be more wasteful.

I do think this is a good experiment for the kids to learn to not be wasteful.

12 Melissa June 20, 2011 at 8:50 am

Hi Alyssa,
I think this definitely opened my kids’ eyes to how many dishes they use. Our dishwasher is pretty old, so I am very curious to see what the water usage will be with our new method.
Thanks for the comment!

13 Heidi Rice June 16, 2011 at 11:42 am

I 100% agree! Back in 2007 my husband and I moved into a small 600 sq.ft house in Venice Beach. Needless to say there was no dishwasher. We got in the habit of doing the dishshes right after meals due to lack of space. Since then we’ve moved into a few different places with dishwashers and it just sits empty. As I read your post I started thinking I may begin to use it for storage. Moving all those dishes we don’t use into the dishwasher leaves more room in the cupboards for food!

14 Melissa June 20, 2011 at 8:47 am

Hi Heidi,
I loved your Venice Beach home! Definitely use your dishwasher for storage instead. Hope you are doing well!
Take care,

15 Randy June 16, 2011 at 12:50 pm

I’ve been doing it for several years. Wife and Kids (22 and 25) have not picked up the habit. I’ve threatened to pull the one set of dishes for each person. I may do it now. Would my wife devorce me over washing her own bowl. We may see in the near future.

16 Melissa June 20, 2011 at 8:46 am

Hi Randy,
I hope not! One set of dishes definitely keeps the amount of dishes sitting out to a minimum. I’ve noticed that since we brought all the dishes back, I’m seeing more and more dishes sitting around the kitchen. Hmmm….
Take care and good luck!

17 Lynn June 16, 2011 at 12:57 pm

Our problem doesn’t seem to be with the dishes – if I rinse them right away and load them in the dish washer, it’s just a matter of about 1-2 minutes to clean up after 3 people eating. The problem is with the pots, pans and utensils from cooking dinner, and also the coffee pot, reuseable water bottles, and lunch containers. By going ‘green’ for lunch, we’re actually creating more dishes to be washed. I don’t think there’s any alternative to these things if you’re cooking all of your meals and home and bringing leftovers to work for lunch. Wish there was!

18 Melissa June 20, 2011 at 8:44 am

Hi Lynn,
I know what you mean about all those containers. Mr. Right is the only one using lunch dishes right now, and he washes them when he gets home. It does amount to extra work though! Kind of like camping with real dishes, right?

19 Anne June 16, 2011 at 1:48 pm

I’ve never been a big fan of dishwashers, which is why mine holds the cutting boards on the bottom rack and my sharp knives on the top rack. It was always such a pain to load and unload, so I gave it up entirely. We haven’t been any more ill than when we used it, regardless of what my dad claims about its sanitizing ability. I don’t worry about the water I use because I save it in a dish pan, then dump it on my plants outside. I couldn’t do that with my dishwasher.

20 Melissa June 20, 2011 at 8:43 am

Extra storage – I love it! Excellent idea about reusing the water outside. Thanks for sharing!

21 Molly June 16, 2011 at 11:13 pm

Great post, Melissa! If you’re looking for ways to save water when you and your family wash dishes by hand, try these tips:

1. Buy a sturdy dish pan/dish tub and fill it with hot, soapy water.
2. Wash as many dishes as will fit into your sink (either next to the dish tub or in your second sink, if your sink is divided). When you can’t fit another (clean, soapy) dish in the sink, rinse them and put them in your drying rack.
3. Wash your dishes, etc. in this order: Cups/glasses, silverware, dishes and bowls, pots and pans. You won’t have to change your wash water as often. (I remember learning this in a home ec class in middle school and it really works!)

Good luck! And congratulations on your decision!

P.S.: Any chance you’ll write a post on divorcing your microwave?

22 Melissa June 20, 2011 at 8:41 am

Lovely, Molly! You really know how to work a dish pan. 🙂

I don’t think we’ll be divorcing our microwave. But tell me more. Why do you ask?

23 Denise June 17, 2011 at 4:28 pm

Melissa, I’m a fairly new reader of your blog and just loving it.

I look forward to your updates about water usage, as studies are showing more and more that, when used to maximize energy-saving features, modern dishwashers can outperform all but the most frugal hand washers.

Loved finding that out, because I’d much rather scrape and load the dishwasher than hand wash any day. We’ve lived both with and without, much preferring the former. Alas, our old dinosaur of a washer is far from efficient, so I’m hoping it will die soon and the landlord will replace.

But if it works better for your family time and clutter-wise to handwash – even if it uses more water – you could offset that usage by conserving more water in other areas. For instance a 5-minute shower rule (with fun, colorful timer in the shower stall), turning off water while brushing teeth, only doing full loads of laundry, etc.

Anne’s and Molly’s suggestions are great ones for handwashing, especially if using phosphate-free, eco-friendly dish liquid.

Here’s to peace and order in the kitchen!

24 Melissa June 20, 2011 at 8:40 am

Hi Denise,

Thanks for sharing the water info in your comment. It will be interesting to see our water bill in then next couple months.
Have a wonderful week!

25 Marie June 27, 2011 at 3:35 pm

Umm… this may be a dumb question but what did you do about pots, pans, measuring cups, etc.? In an effort to cut down on the fast food we’ve been cooking at home. This creates a considerable amount of dishes especially when you aren’t using processed foods.

26 Melissa June 28, 2011 at 8:02 pm

Hi Marie,
We’ve always washed those by hand, so continuing to do that hasn’t created more work. That is one of the downfalls of cooking at home – there’s a mess to clean up! The benefits far outweigh the challenges, though.

One thing that works is having everyone chip in by washing 3 to 5 extra “big dishes” I call them. We share the work that way.
Hope this helps!

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