How to catch up on dirty dishes

How to catch up on dirty dishes

Reading Time: 8 minutes

We’ve all been there.

Life suddenly becomes busy or hectic and the dirty dishes start piling up in the kitchen sink. You cannot find any clean silverware or plates or bowls when you need them. By the time you have the time to address the haphazardly growing mountain, it seems the dirty dishes have taken over!

And just looking at it is overwhelming!

The overwhelming struggle with dirty dishes

Questions start flooding your mind: How long will it take? Where to even start?

Struggles with mobility, chronic pain, a long-term illness, or a temporary health crisis can make the situation even worse. You fall just a day or two behind and it can seem impossible to catch up.

I empathize. My third pregnancy was physically challenging for me, especially the last month where I experienced pelvic and groin pain so severe there was about a week there where I could not walk or lift a foot without excruciating pain. Pain so strong, over-the-counter pain medicines (safe for pregnancy) did not even touch it.

So today we’re going to talk about how to catch up on dirty dishes when you are experiencing either physical or time challenges and some tips to stay ahead of the mountain.

This is our kitchen with over two days' worth of dirty dishes in the sink and counter.
This was our kitchen the other day with an accumulation of two and a half days of unwashed dishes (and after already washing some).

Before we jump in, I want to say something very important: There are going to be daysmaybe even a few in a rowwhere you are unable to maintain a neat and tidy kitchen or empty sink. IT IS OKAY. Don’t beat yourself up or get discouraged.

Life is like a river that ebbs and flows, sometimes fast and sometimes slow, sometimes challenging and sometimes peaceful. It might be a rough time for you right now. Give yourself grace.

Catching up with a dishwasher

If you are fortunate to have a working dishwasher, you might start will rinsing and loading the most crucial items that you need on a daily basis: silverware, plates, bowls, and cups.

While these are washing in the first load, find the larger items that need a good soak (like pots and pans). Fill them with hot, soapy water and let them have soak until all of the stuck-on food is easily rinsed/wiped away.

When the first load is finished, put the dishes away so you can do the next load. Take your time, and take breaks if you need to, but keep at it until all of the dishes are done.

Catching up on dirty dishes by hand

For those of us without a dishwasher or, for some reason, are unable to use the dishwasher, we have the arduous task of catching up by hand. At first glance, it can seem an insurmountable undertaking! Especially if you are the type of person who feels it is an all-or-nothing sort of task.

So instead of diving in head first, let’s be strategic and plan out how to tackle this challenge.

Also, remember, that you can pause at any time and take a much needed break! There have been some days I was able to catch up in one-go and there have been others where it took breaking it up into a number of briefer sessions throughout the day (or even over two days).

Step 1: Put away any clean dishes

If you have any clean dishes sitting in your drying rack, then the first thing you need to do is put these away. This provides a space to place the dishes when you wash them. It also removes some of the visual clutter and allows you to actually see how many dirty dishes there are.

Step 2: Sort the dirty dishes

It may be tempting to grab the dish soap and washcloth (or sponge) and get started on your pile (or piles!) of dirty dishes, but I have learned from plenty of personal experiences that this is not ideal. You will find yourself working really hard, but there is a smarter and better way.

Sort the dirty dishes!

Yes, I just said sort the dirty dishes. Even if you have a small kitchen, use your countertop to sort and stack like-items. Put oven trays at the bottom, then flat plates, then bowls. Stack cups in cups. Gather all of the silverware and put them together. Off to the side, sort and stack the larger or less important items (pots, pans, colanders, etc.)

This not only allows you to see all the dishes, but you can prioritize the ones that are most important. Because, and here is the best part, you don’t have to do ALL the dishes ALL at once! Now that the dirty dishes are sorted, you can knock them out in manageable batches!

Here the dirty dishes are stacked and the sink empty, cleaned, and ready for tackling this massive job!
Sorry for the blurriness, but you can see here all the dirty dishes sorted and stacked.

Step 3: Clean the sink

If you have the room, I highly recommend removing all of the dirty dishes out of the sink and doing a quick clean. If the dirty dishes have been sitting there for a while (possibly even a few days), the sink will be filled with food crumbs, dirty water, bacteria, and other gross stuff. *shudders*


  • Rinse the sink with hot water.
  • Clear out the drain trap or run the garbage disposal.
  • Wipe the sink down with your preferred cleaner.

Step 4: Rinse the recyclables

If you have any recyclables that need rinsing and air-drying, I usually do them at this stage. It helps clear more space for washing the dirty dishes. It also shrinks the number of items stacked on your countertop so, visually, you are whittling away at the overwhelming mountain one easy-to-do piece at a time.

Step 5: Wash the dishes in batches

As I mentioned previously, the best method I have found after struggling with hand washing dishes for many years—especially when I fall behind and there are a ton of them to do—is to wash in batches.

TIP: Between the batches you can either let the dishes air dry and put them away before you start the next batch (in case you need a break yourself) or you can grab a hand towel, dry, and put the dishes away right away (if you have the time and energy to do more than one batch at a time).

Batch 1: I like to start with sharp knives. I do this for two reasons:

  1. We now have little kids who like to grab things, and I want all of the sharp knives safely put away.
  2. I don’t want to reach into a full sink blindly and cut myself on a sharp knife hiding beneath the soap suds.

Batch 2: Next I usually do all of the silverware and cooking/serving utensils. Many households have a limited supply of these items, and we go through them very quickly. It is not fun when your hot dinner gets cold because you spent too long looking for a clean fork or spoon or chopsticks or your soup starts to stick to the bottom of the pan as you search for something to stir it with.

TIP: The next few batches depend on how you prioritize your dishes, but I will give you the order I do mine just in case you need some ideas.

Batch 3: Tackle the kids’ dishes. Because we have two toddlers, we go through the kids’ dishes numerous times a day. It is a never ending cycle: we are always needing clean bibs, bottles, cups, bowls, and plasticware.

It is okay to take breaks when getting caught up on dirty dishes.
At this stage, about four batches have been done, with about three breaks to tend to the kids and for me to sit and rest awhile.

Batch 4: Now do the bowls, plates, and cups. This batch is usually the easiest, fastest, and most enjoyable for me. These items usually fit very nicely in the drying rack so I can knock them all out quickly. The accomplishment of seeing this stack dwindle and disappear is very satisfying!

Batch 5: Do what is left. It can be pots, pans, and other odd-sized and shaped items.

TIP: By sorting, stacking, and then dividing the Mount Everest of dirty dishes into manageable batches, you can tackle this task more efficiently and also provide yourself with natural stopping places.

This comes in handy if you have young children who are in need of attention (because it is a Murphy’s Law or something that, of course, they will need you when you either just start or are right in the middle of a huge task). Instead of getting upset because “I still have so much to do!”, you can calmly finish the current batch, dry your hands, and tend to your children without worrying or stressing.

Success! No more dirty dishes in sight!
All the dirty dishes have been washed! Many of them were also put away. The last few were left to air dry while I rested.

Step 6: Tidy up

Clean and wipe down the counters and stovetops. Tidy up the table. Put any lingering cereal boxes or whatnots back in the pantry or refrigerator. Hang your hand towel to dry and then step back to enjoy your tidy kitchen!

Catching up on dirty dishes with help

Another option when you are overwhelmed is to call in the reinforcements.

Our society prides itself on promoting the toxic idea that you, as an individual, should be able to do it all by yourself. All the time. It doesn’t matter the circumstances you may be facing. But I am very passionate about breaking free from this erroneous and dangerous idea. This pressure and unrealistic expectation is why so many people experience severe exhaustion, burnout, guilt, and possibly even contribute to some cases of depression and anxiety.

There is no shame in asking for help!

No one can do it all — all the time. Everyone will go through periods in their life where they may need a helping hand.

In fact, in years past, people relied heavily upon family, friends, and neighbors during difficult and challenging seasons of life: after childbirth, during illness or injury, etc. This idea that you should be able to do everything by yourself is a very new concept, and it is not only wrong but dangerous.

Be bold and ask for help if and when you need it!

If you are not living alone, then recruit the others in your household to help: spouses, older children, or roommates. I’ve mentioned before that I am a strong believer that every member of a household should contribute to the chores when able.

Perhaps you do live alone or you do not have anyone in your household that is able to help. Then ask your extended family (if any live nearby), friends, or church members.

Explain your situation, ask for their assistance, and maybe offer a treat like popcorn or a cup of coffee, cocoa, or tea for helping you. If your situation is temporary, perhaps you can even do an “I owe you” type of exchange.

In my experience most people who care about you are more than willing to lend a hand if they know you need help. Let’s break the vicious cycle of silent and completely unnecessary martyrdom. Speak up and ask for help.

Wrapping up

It is very easy for someone to say: “Stay on top of the dishes!” It is a completely different thing to actually do it. Many of us have busy schedules. While we may have routines in place to keep things running smoothly, one tiny glitch causes everything to come to a screeching halt.

It is very easy to fall behind on keeping a neat and tidy home. One of the fastest places to dissolve into chaos is the kitchen — the bustling hub of most homes. Hopefully, this little guide has been encouraging and has provided you with a smarter, better way to tackle your next mountain of dirty dishes.

May your home—even with a mountain of dirty dishes—be filled with peace, joy, love, and laughter!

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