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Sep 20, 2009 08:49 AM

Nations Health Decline Because of Dirty Dishes?

Nations Health Decline Because of Dirty Dishes?

Did you ever notice that they never show people washing dishes on cooking shows? On shows like  Chopped, or Top Chef, after contestants destroy a kitchen during a challenge, they never have a follow up scene with them doing the dishes. When the contest begins again after a commercial, the kitchen is spotless.

Even a seemingly simple 30 minute meal by Rachel Ray creates a huge pile of dirty dishes. She throws pans in the oven to roast, has one pot for a sauce, another for veggies, a saute pan to brown meat, bowls to mix salad, and pots for boiling pasta. She uses a blender, a food processor, and chops raw chicken on a cutting board. There are serving platters for presenting her food, more dishes for dessert, utensils for serving, silverware to eat with and glasses for drinks. “Yumm-o” Rachel says with a smile after tasting her food. Then the credits roll. The meal takes 30 minutes to cook, but cleaning the dishes will take much longer. Is Rachel going to wash all of those dishes?

American’s are spending less time in the kitchen these days, about 27 minutes a day. This is down from an hour in the late seventies. And the time we do spend in the kitchen is more about opening a package and reheating then taking out a pan or a cutting board. There are many reasons for our move out of the kitchen. We can point to the fact that more woman are working outside the home, or the increase of fast, and package foods. But I feel that the unspoken reason why American’s are cooking less is the fear of dishpan hands.

I cook home made meals for my family and I create a lot of dirty dishes in the process. Take tonight’s meal of black bean and shrimp tacos with fresh salsa, home made tortillas, and a cabbage slaw. There is the pot for the beans, a broiler pan for the shrimp, bowls for the salsa, the cabbage salad and another for the tortilla dough. I used the salad spinner to wash the cilantro and then there are the plates and bowls to serve the meal. By the time dinner is ready, and served there is a pile of dishes to do. On a good night someone from the family steps up and the dishes get done.

But on a low energy, lazy, let’s do them tomorrow and watch our favorite cooking shows night, the dishes are left. The laziness from last night continues to the next day and the dishes are still not done. Instead of tackling them, I grab from what is left of the clean pots and pans to make dinner. This adds to the pile. One or two meals of not doing the dishes and the whole system breaks down. The kitchen is a mess and even the simplest of cooking tasks like making a grilled cheese sandwich is a pain. The kitchen is a dish nightmare. Suddenly take-out menus are starting to look really good.

Packaged, fast food and/or hot bar meals from the grocery store solve for the dish nightmare, and there is no fear getting dishpan hands. But what has my pursuit of freeing myself from dish duty cost me? The fear of or lack of will to wash dirty dishes is keeping millions of Americans out of the kitchen, in my opinion. This has meant a steady decline of healthy, home cooked meals. The end result has been a predictably steady decline in public health. All in the name of looking for a way out of doing dishes.

No one wants to wash dishes. After all, our cherished food memories are about grandma’s roasted chicken, but not the dirty roasting pan. But if we want to create a culture around healthy, home cooked meals again to counter a fast food driven, and obesity burdened society, clean up has to be apart of the conversation. The simple truth is that washing dishes is a part of a home cooked meal. And behind every Top Chef, 30 Minute Meal, or a health providing, home cooked dinner is a pile of dirty dishes. The famed chef and cooking show host Julia Child once encouraged us to be fearless in the kitchen. I would take that a step further and say that we have to be fearless at the dish sink as well.

(If anyone likes this post and wants to reprint it on their personal blog, or elsewhere, that is great. All I ask is that you include my blog address with it.)


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  1. I disagree. I know many people who actually enjoy the act of cleaning and prefer it to cooking. My own mother HATED to cook and we ate a lot of processed foods. However, she was a fanatic about cleaning, including the dishes. She truly enjoyed that process. Other friends also tell me that they find dish duty almost meditative. In my pre-dishwasher, grad school days, I really enjoyed doing the dishes after a successful dinner party, a quiet, relaxed time to muse on the food, the company, the conversation, with some compatible music playing in the background. These days many, if not most, people have dishwashers (in the US) and really, who is going to watch a show about someone loading plates and cups into a dishwaher.

    The decline in home cooking has nothing to do with a "fear" of dishes. But you raise an interesting point, one which could invite debate, and your writing is clearly thoughtful. I enjoyed reading your piece.

    1 Reply
    1. re: nofunlatte

      I do not think the dishes generated by cooking show stars are at all representative of what goes on in the typical home. When you are the one doing the washing up, you'll think twice before grabbing another pan, and re-use one that's already been used for another dish, or microwave to cook a vegetable or reduce a sauce, and serve it in the same bowl. I notice on Supernanny that despite the big, well-appointed kitchens, many of the families are eating from paper plates. The more "formal" families use plastic! They all have dishwashers so there's really no excuse. But there's not much cooking going on in these households, either - a lot of fish sticks and chicken nuggets. I seriously hope these families aren't typical, either.

      I don't use my dishwasher - matter of fact, when there was a leaky connection and I was having the sink's faucet replaced, I had the plumber disconnect the dishwasher. I think about what I am cooking in advance, so I can often use the same pan for several dishes with just a wipe-out in between. If I can make a batter/dough by hand, in a bowl, I do so - this means I melt butter for cookies and quickbreads. Makes for thinner, crisper cookies, which I favor anyway. AlthoughI don't mind washing dishes, I try to minimize the quantity because of limited space in the drying rack. I DO hate dishrack avalanches!

    2. Interesting theory, but there's not much evidence to support the hypothesis. You're saying that doing dishes is the over-arching reason to stay out of the kitchen, and therefore anything that saves time in doing dishes would increase the amount of cooking we do and therefore our general health. But when you look back at the dishwasher and other time-saving inventions associated with it, you see no correlation to the obesity rate. CDC data indicates a drastic increase in obesity-related mortality since the 70's despite the dishwasher becoming commonplace. Other inventions such as effective detergents and increasingly more powerful dishwashers have failed to make any dent in the obesity epidemic.

      The cause is more likely cultural. I've heard more arguments over which fast food burger is better than over anything related to actual cooking in the kitchen. Most children could identify a Big Mac at 50 paces, yet fail to recognize something as simple as asparagus or eggplant. What's more, our national cuisine seems to consist of burgers and pizza. Not only are those far from the healthiest dishes available, but when was the last time you saw a family making pizza from scratch? Most people don't even know that pizza dough requires yeast, and recoil as if they were stung when they find out. We have a national cuisine that we don't cook ourselves.

      And let me remind you that the US is not the only country facing an obesity problem. The UK is in a similar pinch. And they too lack a national cuisine passed on through the generations.

      So while i do dislike dirty dishes (hooray alliteration!) as much as the next person, i just don't see that as the overarching cause of eating out.

      1. Personally, I think a bigger issue in the spread of disease in this country is the pressure to be productive and not take time off from work when a minor illness strikes.

        1. i totally disagree. i have no problem doing dishes and i cook - usually - five out of seven nights (plus prepare lunch some days).

          doing dishes is relaxing and satisfying - things look so good afterward. plus, its a great way to give kids easy chores and bring them into the way life works: you cook and then you clean.

          it's also nice to wind down after a party with volunteer helpers that assist in doing the dishes. having some wine, chatting, and cleaning up is great!

          1. Well, maybe that's why your family is sick, but not mine. By the end of each day, all the dirty dishes have been tended to. The simple truth is that washing dishes is not interesting. I know how to do it and do not need to watch Giada or Nigella do it. If dishes are too much of a challenge for the home chef, there are plenty of nutritious and delicious "one-pot meals", and I respectfully commend them to you.