The Right Way to Load a Dishwasher

The Handy Maniac would like you all to know one thing, once and for all: THE RIGHT WAY TO LOAD A DISHWASHER.

Dishwasher loading may be one of HM’s craziest obsessions. And that’s saying a lot. He has banished in-laws from the kitchen when they try to clean up after Thanksgiving. Nieces and nephews have cowered around the fireplace while HM pulls every plate out and reloads it. Names have been called, tears have been shed. And still, I would guess many still revert to their old ways as soon as they are out of HM’s jurisdiction.

All of which begs the question: Why does it matter how you load the dishwasher?

HM gives me the look my math teacher once gave me when I asked why I would ever need to know Pi. “It’s not just about the way you put the plates in. It’s what you do BEFORE you load them. You know why it’s called a DISHWASHER? It’s supposed to WASH YOUR DISHES.”
How many times has HM been asked to repair or replace a bad dishwasher, only to discover it was a bad dish washer?  (This is one of HM’s favorite “jokes.”)


“You know what really drives me crazy?” he asks. I have a lot of guesses. But before I can list them, he continues. “A dinner party of 6 or 8 and they wash every dish before they put it in and THEN TURN THE DISHWASHER ON RIGHT AFTER THEY LOAD IT. I have sisters guilty of this. It infuriates me. There is no excuse for it. I hate to see people with $1000 Miele’s doing all the work for their fancy dishwasher by pre-washing. Not to mention wasting all that water.” (As a Texan, HM is appalled at any disregard for this precious resource.)

And herein lies the crux of HM’s uphill battle on this habit: You should NOT pre-rinse your dishes before putting them in the dishwasher.

I know. I didn’t believe it either. This is one of those lessons that goes against every instinct in one’s being. Which is why HM is laying out his dishwasher challenge. “I will personally kiss anyone who can load a dishwasher without turning on the kitchen faucet.”

I point out that that may not be such a great enticement to many readers. Not to mention impractical. I get a mini lecture on taking things too literally, which is pretty darn rich coming from HM, if you ask me.

Kissing prize aside, let’s say you are willing to consider this no-rinse challenge but have some issues. HM can guess what they are. The number one pushback he gets is: “They get smelly.” HM firmly believes: “Everyone has some burned-in childhood memory of stinky dishes and they’re convinced rinsing solves it. But I have been making you scrape the scraps into the trash and put the plates in the dishwasher without pre-rinsing for years and do we get stinky dishes?”

No, I have to admit. We don’t. “Hell, I’d smell it up in our bedroom under the covers if it was that bad!” says HM. (Remember, he is a super-smeller).

The second reason people fight him on pre-rinsing is they don’t want bits of food to clog their dishwasher drain.

HM wants people to know that if you scrape your dishes, and there are more food particles left on your plate than you’re used to… “Understand that leftover spaghetti and chicken and bits of food are ground up in the food grinder that’s at the bottom of every dishwasher. TRUST THE GRINDER.”

My personal complaint (and the reason I have been known to sneak a rinse when he’s not looking) is that food sometimes sticks to our silverware when we don’t pre-rinse. “That has to do with over-stacking,” he says, with a subtext of blame. Clearly only one of us over-stacks, and I bet you can guess which one. “Sometimes ‘we’ pack 5-deep in the silverware compartment. ‘We’ do not have a high-tech dishwasher. So ‘we’ need to pay special attention to loading.”

This brings me to the next step in his technique...

It’s all in the loading: Think like water

If we can all agree to give the no-rinse technique a couple of weeks, how about we all learn to load a dishwasher correctly?  

HM’s dream dishwasher would have a glass front so people would truly understand what goes on inside. Then, he is convinced, it would be blatantly apparent to us what we should all be doing because when a dishwasher starts ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE.  

But in the absence of a glass front, he wants us to: “THINK LIKE WATER!! Or think like a CYCLONE of water. There is an eye of the hurricane and an outer wall. Understand that the source of water will come from the middle – like an old spinning sprinkler spewing water out from the center.”  
OK, now that we are all one with the water, what does that mean we should do?  “Don’t load the plates going all the way across facing the same direction!” Bowls and plates on the left side should face the middle. Bowls and plates on the right should face the middle. “Spread out your dirty silverware in whatever receptacle you have – tray or basket – don’t pack them in too tight.” (This last bit was directed at me.)

“Big pots and pans, large salad bowls, etc. probably shouldn’t go into a dishwasher because they stop the water going up through the entire unit. You want the water to be able to flow throughout.  Or put them to the far left or right. Ditto washable cutting boards.”

Almost kiss-worthy. Can you spot the mistake?  ·  © J. Quigley

Almost kiss-worthy. Can you spot the mistake?  ·  © J. Quigley

HM believes the dishwasher is one of the most efficient appliances in existence. He has great reverence for it, from the $300 GE to the $1000 Bosch. “They are very smart these days. They only take 2-3 gallons of water and reuse it for most of the wash cycle.”

Be careful not to load the dishwasher so that the soap door is blocked, preventing it from opening during the cycle. (Reader, you know who you are.)

Soap and Settings

Speaking of soap: You need to experiment in your part of the country about what kind of soap works best with your type of water and dishwasher. “Try powders, liquids, whatever. But the most important takeaway is ABSOLUTELY USE A RINSE AGENT.” There is a special compartment for these; rinse agents go in at the last cycle and make the water slick right off the glasses so you don’t get water spots.

HM has found most dishwashers run best on Normal with no Heat Dry. This saves energy, and also saves your plastic cups, handles, knives and forks from the extreme effects of the drying cycle. HM just cracks the dishwasher open when it’s done and lets it air dry. “Heat Dry is like running a space heater for twenty minutes.” He recommends using NONE OF THE FRILLY BUTTONS for a normal load.

Exceptions to the Rules

Now here’s the tricky part. There are exceptions:

  • “Obviously I don’t like wooden spoons and pots and pans in the dishwasher, and those need to be washed by hand in the sink.”
  • “If you’ve had fish, and aren’t going to run it right away, okay, rinse. That’ll stink.”
  • “Sometimes I do run a load of pots and pans after a particularly heavy cooking session, using the pots and pans setting.”
  • “I occasionally take the racks off the BBQ grill and put them in on the pots and pans high heat setting.”
  • “There ARE exceptions. You’ll learn’ em. But make them exceptions, not the rules.”

Who Wins?

So, in summary:

  • Don’t pre-rinse.
  • Think like water: Stack the dishes so they will all be rinsed by the center cyclone of water that projects from the bottom and top.
  • Find the soap that works with your water.
  • Use a rinse agent.
  • Use the normal setting and no heated dry.

HM has forced me to follow all of these rules (obviously I have a thing or two still to learn about over-stacking cutlery) and our crummy little $300 dishwasher does the trick.  

Writing this one really took it out of me. I’m exhausted, but as I climb into bed, I decide to cash in on my prize and lean in for a kiss. But he is distracted. I hear him muttering, “I wish I could put a five gallon bucket under the sink of the average person and show them how much they waste rinsing by hand, versus the amount of water that will be used by the dishwasher. LET THE DISHWASHER WASH THE DISHES…”

And as I roll over in disgust, HM finally cozies up to me, spooning like a well-stacked Miele. As I drift off, I hear, “God I wish dishwashers had glass fronts on them…”

And to all a good night.

This article was first published on on Tuesday, November 18th 2014