Recovering the Lost Art of Hand Dishwashing (Tips for When Your Dishwasher is Broken)

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Dishwashing gloves on edge of sink full of soapy water and washed dishes.

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In case you hadn’t heard, our dishwasher broke three weeks ago. I didn’t realize what a vital member of the household it was until it broke. I know, a dishwasher is a luxury. Our pioneer mothers lived quite productive lives without them. Our sisters in other countries regularly experience dishpan hands. I didn’t know how good I had it.

Believe it or not, the last three weeks have not been a crisis. In fact, I’ve discovered lots of ways to thrive despite the fact that I must wash dishes at least three times a day. For all you peeps without an automatic dishwasher, hearken unto the voice of my cry:

  1. Wash as you go. Whatever you do, do not let the dishes pile up. Do not pass go; do not collect $200. If the meal is over, wash up. If the snack is over, wash up. It isn’t going to get easier. Trust me.
  2. Put them away right away. The secret of the dishwasher is that it hides your dishes, whether clean or dirty. Don’t let the grass grow under your feet. Deal with the dishes right away.
  3. Get good soap. I prefer Dawn. We’ve tried other bargain brands, truly we have. This is not an infomercial. Dawn really does cut grease out of the way.
  4. Wear gloves. This is absolutely necessary, especially in winter. I pick up several packages on sale at Walgreens, usually 3/$1, and stash them until I need a new pair.
  5. Use the racks from the dishwasher! Normally, we load the dishwasher with cups, plates, and flatware and then handwash pots and pans. We have a small countertop drying rack for this purpose. However, we quickly outgrew this drying rack once we started handwashing complete dinner sets for 8+ people. (The dishwasher broke prior to our Kansas friends coming for a visit.) What a brilliant idea to use the dishwasher racks to dry dishes. I’m hoping that when the new machine is installed tomorrow, that they’ll let me keep one of these mammoth drying racks.
  6. Limit your children to one cup per person. I told you how my children are all color coded? Well, I hid all their extra cups after a few days of washing 20 cups per day. They each get one cup – ONE. And this has worked amazingly well. I already told them they’re not getting the extra cups back!
  7. Teach your kids to wash dishes. I learned to wash dishes when I was seven, but recently realized that NONE of my children knew how to handwash dishes. This has proven to be a wonderful bonding experience – a silver lining, if you will, to the stormy cloud. One night while washing and rinsing with FishBoy7, he struck up the most amazing conversation:

FB: Mama, what was your best part of the day?

Mama: Our talk during dinner tonight. I loved your answers to my questions. I could tell you were thinking about them carefully. {continues washing dishes}

FB: Aren’t you going to ask me the best part of my day?

Mama: Oh, yes, what was the best part of your day?

FB: Right now. Washing dishes with you.

Be still my heart. Handwashing with my boy certainly works for me, even if the dishwasher doesn’t.

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  1. I don’t even OWN a dishwasher. The best part of my day is after dinner when my husband and I do dishes together. He asked me if a dishwasher is a must when we buy (we currently rent) I told him no. Ok, there are some days I wish I had one but not many. I use Ajax soap and I’ve found that putting some vinegar in your wash water will make things really SHIINE.

  2. My Grandma never had a dishwasher she always washed them by hand (we would all help her when the whole family was there) and I always liked doing dishes back then. I still do just now it’s not as exciting since my dishwasher broke (which happend to be right before Christmas) So for now it’s my giant drying rack too, I just haven’t had time for the new one to get installed or maybe I subconsciously want to revert back to the old ways. haha

  3. With 15 children in our family the one cup rule has to apply. We installed a narrow shelf and labeled it with names, now we don’t have people saying they can not find their cup etc. This also helps in keeping the house appear cleaner and not having dirty cups everywhere. Also only using one cup each has made it that we only need to run the dishwasher 1 time per day on school days. We always hand wash pots and pans as they are to big for the dishwasher.

  4. I enjoyed this post! I wash my dishes by hand during the Christmas season due to using my Spode Christmas china. I do not want it to chip (which it does in the dishwasher). I decided to “enjoy” my china by using it for every meal from the day after Thanksgiving until Jan. 1. Thus, during the busiest time of my life, I am adding a huge chore to the list. Think this is awful? Actually, it’s not. It is my quiet time, my time to re-center myself, and my time to share highlights of my day with my family if they stay in the kitchen to help dry. Maybe our foremothers were smarter than we think!!

  5. πŸ™‚ This made me smile! I hand washed dishes for 9 years, until we purchased our current home. My only request was that it had a dishwasher! πŸ™‚ It has been almost 4 years that I’ve used the dishwasher and there are times where I find myself still hand washing dishes for the fun of it… silly, I know! πŸ™‚ My favorite part is the great smelling soap… lavender, orange, apple, mountain mist… oh my! πŸ™‚

  6. We got a dishwasher last year after 12 years of not having one, and I’m so well trained that I STILL “wash as I go”, even though I could just load those things into the dishwasher. But hey, more room for the multitudes of cups that I still haven’t been able to teach my daughters to limit to one per day!

    I also second the gloves point. Don’t do what I did, kids, and wash gloveless. My hands look 20 years older than the rest of me.

  7. My dishwasher has been threatening to die, for a long time. so I wash by hand and pretend it still works. I would use it occasionally but have gotten used to hand washing, and i always use it as a drying rack. My littles are learning life skills and dishes are next on the list. actually i was thinking that Dad needs in on this great “experience” too. Thanks for a great post

  8. My dishwasher isn’t broken, but I periodically choose a week or two where we handwash all dishes. There are 11 of us at home, so that’s a LOT of dishes. Your number 1 trick is THE trick. Do them right away, and have a sibling or two dry and put them away.
    I have used my dishwasher to let them air dry a bit too. Not with the rack out, just stuck them right in there!
    I am an only child, and my job was to wash the supper dishes every night. I HATED it!!! Now, I don’t mind doing them at all! It’s a chance to stand still and think about all sorts of things. I like looking out the window over my sink while I wash.
    All my kids down to the 8 yr old are currently trusted to wash…youngers can dry and put away.

  9. I use the “one cup” idea too… only not with plastic cups! I got so tired of my kids always bumping them over, until a friend gave me the idea to use mugs! So each kid now has their own mug… they haven’t knocked one over yet, and I don’t have to refill as often either! πŸ™‚

  10. Ah, the one cup rule. We have it at our house, but when I go visit Mom, somehow my cup always disappears. Any tips for training my mom not to wash my cup after every sip?

    1. My cousin always puts a rubber band around her cup. She lets everyone know that cup is off limits to washing.

  11. I keep asking my husband to use the same cup throughout the day, but somehow we end up with a dishwasher full of cups. I think I’m going to follow your lead and actually HIDE all of the other cups.

  12. I never really thought about the fact that my daugther doesn’t really know how to wash dishes. She rinse them to put them in the dishwasher but that’s it. It’s probably time she learned the washing part. Dawn seems to work best for us, too. And believe me, I have tried them all but keep coming back to this.

  13. Hi LifeAsAMom,

    I’m sorry to hear that your dishwasher is broken, that’s not fun. Although from your posts it sounds like it’s providing for some beautiful family moments of being together, so perhaps it’s not all that bad.

    Have you had a look at what could be wrong the dishwasher? You might be surprised how simple it is to fix and you can order appliance spare parts online.

    Admittedly I work for an appliance spare part retailer; before working here I had no idea that you could buy all the parts to fix it yourself. I hope that you’ll give it a go. If you need any help I’m personally available on twitter, my username is @espares.

    Kind regards,

  14. Love all of your tips! We have been married for 17 years and have never had a dishwasher. Someday…….. All of your suggestions are wonderful! Dawn is definitely the best. I’m a coupon girl, but will pay more to get Dawn. If I can just get my 5 kiddos to actually follow the one cup rule!! And I have to admit that the only part I really hate is putting the clean dishes away…Mom needs to work on that! πŸ™‚

    1. I literally took all the other cups away. You have to follow it if there aren’t any others! LOL

  15. This post made me chuckle. We follow most of those same rules…except we don’t have a dishwasher. We haven’t had on in 16 years. I looong for a dishwasher. Unfortunately the size and layout of my kitchen forbids one. So alas, I am chained to the sink. To be honest, it isn’t so bad….except when you are washing 2849425487 baby bottles that have 38759347349 parts to them (Thank you Dr. Brown)!

  16. I went to the “one cup a day” system 3 years ago. My husband and I stick with it too. It is so much easier than everyone having 3 or 4 cups being used during the day. Pick a cup in the morning and thats your cup for the day. The only exception is in the winter…we usually each have a cup and a mug (hot chocolate or hot tea). But still, it cuts down on the clutter and extra stuff to wash!

  17. We’ve been “one cuppers” for years – I didn’t have a dishwasher until 2 years ago. Plus we had really bad water pressure that made dish washing a looooong drawn-out chore.

    On the gloves – I find it better to invest in heavy duty gloves that can stand up to the silverware and knives. I used to buy some black, industrial type gloves at (of all places) the dollar store, but then my husband brought home some green ones from work that fit me. It was a good sized bag and has lasted me for years because each pair lasted for months and months. Then I’d just replace a single one when one got nicked. Alas, I finally used up my last whole pair a few weeks ago and had to buy some. Oh, and if you can find heavy duty ones that also have a long sleeve that can be rolled, that’s even better because it keeps the water from running down the glove and onto your arms and clothing!

  18. Love #5 – ONE CUP. I’m still trying to get my teenagers to grasp this concept.

    We purchased a new dishwasher in May 09 after having saved up the cash to pay for a new one. The old one was still working (running) but not cleaning up to my standard so we were washing by hand. My new dishwasher is one of my best friends. Bet yours will be too.

  19. We had really bad dishwasher luck for awhile, and I spent about 6 months without a working dishwasher. It was NO fun- especially since I had baby bottles to wash every night from daycare. I can’t imagine having done it with so many people to feed! oy!

  20. I was recently thinking of getting rid of my dishwasher. It doesn’t clean very well…I have to almost hand wash each dish anyway. And I could use that space! I have a rolling storage bin that would fit nicely there and leave room to hide the trash can as well.

    I’m still considering it. After all, my grandmother, who is in her mid-80’s, has lived her entire life without one. I’m sure it won’t kill me!

  21. What a great idea to ask to keep the dishwasher rack out of the old machine to pull out whenever it is necessary!
    We are a small family of 4, but definitely use the 1 cup per person per day rule and it works great. We also keep any other dishes that can be re-used accessible. A kids sandwich plate from lunch can easily be re-used for dinner and likewise for the adults! This helps us to only have to run the dishwasher about once every 5 days!
    Enjoy your new washer!

  22. We have a lot in common – our dishwasher broke also and the children had the dishes to do in addition to the pots and pans! You are right, it is a wonderful experience for them and myself as well as we work together (your #7). It also makes us all appreciate what we have!
    One thing I do whether we have a dishwasher or not, is to keep one color coded cup per child per day (your #6). With a dishwasher we can wash once per day and that is when their cups get washed. We have 10 children so when everyone is home, each cup adds up!
    I will have to try gloves (your #4) because our hands do dry out!

  23. I’m currently right there with you! Our dishwasher broke before Christmas and we are a family of 8, so I whole-heartedly “Amen!” your above list. We have always tried to be a one-cup-per-day family, though the 2-year-old sometimes forgets where she dropped hers and gets a clean one! I’m with you on the dish soap! Dawn is the only kind we use around here. While I don’t always stay on top of the dishes and they sometimes start to pile up, usually because the baby is crying and needs me (babies trump dishes around here!) this season has not been as bad as I anticipated. Although, I am looking forward to getting mine fixed or replaced!

  24. The one cup rule works around here, too. Otherwise, my 4 year old will take a sip, deposit his cup in the sink of soaking stuff (I’m not so good at the “wash immediately” line item!) and pull out another clean cup 5 minutes later.

    A friend from high school had a non-functional dishwasher and they just used it to store the dishes. They were washed, stuck in the dishwasher to dry, and never transferred to a cabinet. In their small apartment, the cabinet space was otherwise needed as pantry space. Worked for them!

  25. We’ve been on again off again w/ a dishwasher for years. Even with a dishwasher, I limit the kids’ cups b/c that’s a lot of cups if I don’t! Much of what you said are the same things I’ve done to ease the “pain” of handwashing.

  26. My dishwasher, while not broken completely, just does not CLEAN anymore. It hasn’t for well over a year now. We planned to renovate our kitchen in 2009, and get a new one then, but with my husband’s illness and ultimate death, it never happened. So, I continue to do the dishes by hand. Your first “rule” above is absolutely the most important one, and I’m trying to keep on top of that. I must air-dry my dishes because using a towel results in dog hair everywhere, even if the towel is fresh from the wash. Crazy! But on the whole I don’t entirely mind my dishes being done by hand, except when I get behind (refer again to Rule #1), and even though it was my most loathed chore growing up (simply because it was ALWAYS my turn to do them) I don’t entirely mind doing them now.

  27. I have always washed my dishes by hand, actually I like to. My children know how to wash dishes by hand.