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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.

            1. Seriously, buy a dishwasher.

              Or rethink how to reuse utensils and pots WHILE you are cooking.

              I have dishwashing phobia and in fact the opposite is true for me. It makes me eat healthier.

              At most, I make one pie a year because the thought of cleaning counters, rolling pins, measuring cups etc is more than I want to deal with. Good luck getting me to make any other baked good.

              I eat things in as pristine state as possible ... fresh fruit for dessert, fresh heirloom tomatoes, nuked veggies, etc.

              When I do cook anything more complex such as chicken soup or chili, it is a one-time event with most going into the freezer. One big pain-in-the-butt cooking / cleaning session and weeks of direct from the freezer nuking ... of healthy food.

              Even lettuce, cilantro, etc I do in one fell swoop. I spend an hour or two washing and spinning lettuce and then sort it in tupperware or in the case of things like parsley or cilantro, in glass jars. I'm good for a week at the least. This means cleaning the salad spinner one time only ... and I have the type of spinner that I can use to store the lettuce in.

              I deal with melons ONE time only. I cut it up and keep it in tupperware in the fridge. One watermelon = one knife, one time.

              I even rethink recipes to use one pot such as this one

              Gringo quick and easy, healthy, low-fat, low-cost, one-pot wat

              Brown paper bag in microwave. Directly eat from bag (I'm not a butter person I eat it plain or with spices or a little grated cheese)

              Breakfast is usually nuked oatmeal which = one dish and one spoon to clean.

              There was a time when I was not only handling an 80 hour work week but also taking care of a sick parent. Because of lack of time, if I ate at home, it was off paper plates, but what was on those plates was healthy. I ate out a lot but usually my choices were healthy ones. I like to think of those as my salmon days siince that was the dish I most frequently ordered when eating out.

              So blaming obesity on fear and loathing of dishwashing I don't think holds up. If someone wants to eat healthy they will. If they don't they don't. Nothing to do with dishwashing.

              5 Replies
              1. re: rworange

                I am the cook in the household and I clean as I go. By the time the food is on the table all the pans are either washed or are in the dishwasher. I must wash my hands at least five+ times during the preperation of every meal...

                1. re: Sean

                  I'm with you on the "clean as I go". Took a while to master that one, but I find a minute here and there to wash up the pots, empty the dish drainer, load the dishwasher, etc. By the time dinner's been eaten, there is often not much to do, aside from put the dinner dishes in the dishwasher. Nothing worse than finding a dirty kitchen the next day.

                  1. re: Full tummy

                    We also have occasional ant raids. If one lousy ant finds a speck of food it means weeks of insect wars. There was one period I swear they were waiting by the door like a pet to see what I brought in the house. Leaving dishes overnight in the sink would be like sending a pajama party invite to the critters.

                    1. re: rworange

                      same here. one crumb = 1,000,000 ants

                    2. re: Full tummy

                      I agree with you re the state in which I *don't* want to find my kitchen in the morning. I'm not the world's best housekeeper; I'll admit that right now. But it's so much nicer to wake up and come downstairs to clean, orderly kitchen, with the morning light coming in. Sets the day off on the right foot, IMO. I'm a SAHW and for most things I can set my own schedule. I seldom feel like doing the dishes immediately after dinner; after dinner is when I find I really need a little break and maybe even a nap. But whatever didn't go into the dishwasher during dinner prep generally gets all cleaned up before I go to bed. (And aside from the cheer factor, there's only so much time even I'm willing to give all those little microbes to multiply.)

                2. Well, I must confess that we rarely do dishes everyday. Usually every other day or so. As we are in a small apt, we don't have a dishwasher, so everything is done by hand. And we just don't feel like doing it every day.

                  And it never keeps us from cooking dinner or keeps me from making my lunch and breakfast to take to work. My kitchen was a disaster zone on Sunday morning, but it didn't stop me from making scones and tea sandwiches for my mom's birthday party. I just did the dishes first.

                  But I really don't think that I am the norm. Almost everyone I know does the dishes right away after dinner. So it's not the stack of dirty dishes that is keeping them from cooking on any particular night.

                  Also, I disagree with the comment that no one has the cherished memories of the 'dirty roasting pan.' Most of our big family dinners are my mom's house and she likes the dishes done after dinner. And it turns into a big party in the kitchen. I'm not required to be in the washing up crew, because I am on the cooking crew, but I keep finding myself wandering in, because there is too much fun going on.

                  1. I like to cook, hate doing the dishes. We don't have a dishwasher, so yes it is a pita sometimes. And I don't do dishes every day, so yes they do pile up.

                    I'll tell you what though, I've gotten creative at times for ways to dirty as few dishes/utensils as possible lol! And I have seen people on non-food related messageboards cite cleaning as one of the things working against home-cooked meals. People are bloody tired after work. Everybody lets something slip when they are exhausted, and home-cooked food (and the subsequent cleaning) are one of them in some cases.

                    It's a combination of factors, and I don't doubt that dirty dishes works in as one of them.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Popkin

                      I am in a similar situation and share most of these sentiments too. Like you, I try to plan ahead and be creative, to minimize the amount of dirty dishes created. I usually cook from scratch so even seemingly simple dishes involve a lot of things (chopping board, cleaver and other knives, salad spinner, mixing bowls for sauces etc.). I try cleaning as I go but generally get so tired after the meal that dishes get handled the next day or later. Also, I'd rather rush to get started on dinner when it is freshly cooked, than to worry about some last minute cleanup.

                      I like this topic, with its interesting points, even though I don't know exactly what the main point is :)

                      Some relevant things I can say is, the amount of piled up dirty dishes do affect my desire to make another involved meal, and as soon as I have a clean kitchen, I am much more motivated to use it. Of course this is also because there is more space available for enjoyable food preparation.

                      Also some words on creative uses to economize on creating dirty dishes. I have been very busy so have been finding myself using the microwave much more than usual, just because the heating process involve fewer dishes. For example I can heat up leftovers in one of those glass fridge-to-table containers, and other things on a piece of parchment paper that I can just reuse or throw away.

                      One more complex aspect to allow fewer dishes is to prepare food in bigger batches. This way, in addition to freezing extra portions (I don't call that leftovers) for a later meal, it also means I do some planning ahead, to cook a batch of food as big as it is optimal, to allow for possible "morphing" or recomposing it into a subsequent dish or meal. Generally the more involved the cooking process (making some kind of casserole with the big bunch of kale yesterday, for example), the bigger batch I am inclined to make. I am not the kind who is happy with having the same things two meals in a row so this works pretty well. All in all, I find this a nice balance between minimal cleanup, minimal effort and reasonable meals.

                    2. I am very neat and use a minimum of dishes/pots/pan when I could and use them efficiently and load the dishwasher and/or clean as I go.

                      OTOH, my husband makes the biggest mess ever in the kitchen and when he offers to cook, often my first reaction is the mess I will face when cleaning the kitchen and while I love his cooking, whether it's breakfast, grilled cheese for lunch, dinner or a holiday meal...he can use more dishes and pots and pans than I can ever imagine.

                      I can definitely see how facing the kitchen can discourange some from cooking.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Janet from Richmond

                        If your home was the "Everybody Loves Raymond" set, hubby would deliberately mess up the kitchen so that in the future you would decline his offers to cook. Just a thought...you might want to agree on a policy of s/he who uses it cleans it.

                        1. re: greygarious

                          Nope...he loves to cook, just makes a mess. It's one of the few domestic things I do....clean up the kitchen (the other one is laundry and taking out the kitchen trash). He does the vast majority of other domestics...feeding the animals, mid-week cleaning, washing windows, yard work, etc. And it's just the two of us. He also does the vast majority of grocery shopping and stuff like Costco and the wine shop.

                      2. I concede that dish duty is not the only reason people are cooking less, and yes, in trying to throw some humor into my post, I make some gross generalizations.

                        With that said, I do feel that behind every fast food, packaged, take out, microwave, and hot bar meal, there is in part an ease of clean up factor that is both behind the motivation to purchase them, and part of the billion dollar effort to market these meals.

                        People are spending less time cooking and that means less time at the dish sink too. There are some on this post that mentioned they like or do not mind doing dishes. Being the Chowhounders, I imagine that more of us cook then the average person and have made peace with dirty dishes by cleaning as we go, using less, or being zen about cleaning.

                        When I think about dish duty portrayed on TV there are two competing scenes. One scene is that of a couple after a meal or dinner party at the dish sink. One washes and the other dries while they smile, and flirt with each other. Dishes seems like foreplay. If that was the cast, I would be doing way more dishes.

                        The other scene is that of a huge pile of dishes and the person doing them is soaking wet, with a dirty apron, and is a salve to the sink.

                        The reality may be somewhere in between. Maybe the reason cooking shows are referred too as "food porn" is because it portrays a food fantasy where food is created and dishes do not have to be cleaned. Seeing a big pile of dishes to be cleaned is the fastest way to lose our metaphorical culinary boner.

                        In the back of my mind, when I decide to pick up take-out instead of cook a meal, the thought is that I do not feel like cooking and having to clean up tonight. For me, the clean up is the bigger deal than the cooking. I imagine that I am not alone with this thought. Some have posted to that affect. If the need to avoid clean up is strong then that can keep many people out of the kitchen, and to the phone for take-out.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: chefbrian1

                          I wrote in another post that I didn't understand the main point, but I think I do better now.

                          I am in the school of those who love cooking but hate washing dishes, although I also hate a cluttered, messy kitchen. I am also a picky eater so despite the fear of the dirty dish pile, I'd rather resort to a simpler (but still a good quality) meal, than to ordering in.

                          For me, this translates to having a few quality frozen meals in the freezer, either homemade or carefully selected commercial, and a good selection of condiments and other versatile ingredients at hand, that help simplify the process to a healthy, delicious meal. I am constantly evaluating this process and seeking to improve it, so I appreciate this subject being brought up and discussed.

                          A bit on the fear of a dirty kitchen resulting in less healthy meals. I have seen people with immaculate, food-show quality kitchens who somehow fear using it as it is meant to be (i.e. in my words, passionately) because of messing it up. And yes, these people end up eating snacks and eating out. Maybe someone should come up with a food show that is a break from "porn" norms where the chef uses a load of state-of-the-art gadgets and make everyone feel intimidated that they cannot seriously handle this style of cooking AND the cleaning up. Maybe a food show along the lines of RR's 30-Minute Meals but with the slant of focusing more on cooking from scratch and having the chef demonstrate how she gets involved with dish-cleaning, with creative food preparation shortcuts.

                          On the other hand, I am not the kind intimidated by that, probably because I care more about good food than outward appearances. There might be more people like me on this board but of course it is probably not the general norm.

                        2. I'm not relating, at all,
                          While I find your post interesting I wouldn't think of leaving my dishes or pots and pans around overnight to clean the next day.
                          My pots and pans and utensils and napkins and everything else I use in the kitchen are investments. I treat them as such. Everything in my kitchen is the same.
                          I actually enjoy the quiet time in the kitchen, with great music playing, to clean and reorganize everything I've used.
                          That's just me.

                          1. If we're getting take-out, it is because we are both tired and hungry before we ever get home from work. There are times when you've had a long day and just don't want to spend even a 1/2 hour doing anything when you get home. Dishes don't even enter my mind at that point.

                            1. Interesting...
                              About the shows, I'm pretty sure the cleanup part of a cooking show would have low ratings :)

                              Not cooking as much (to me anyway!) seems to be a lack of knowledge about how to cook or the laziness as to cleanup is actually expanded to not even wanting to cook in the first place let alone deal with cleanup. I've never been averse to cooking because of dishes.

                              Now that I think about it, its probably this inherent laziness that has led to the nation's decline in health! Because you can still eat out and eat healthy!

                              1. I was just replying to a post about what people cook when they come home too tired to cook anything elaborate, and several people's solutions made me think "If I were really tired I wouldn't do that because it would be a pain to clean up."

                                While I'll admit that the thought of cleanup has (rarely) caused me to forego cooking (in favor of leftovers or takeout or cheese and crackers in front of the fridge or doctored ramen or sardines), in general I try to be pretty clever about cleaning as I go and using as few pots and dishes as possible. With practice it becomes second nature.