Ways to make cleaning up after dinner easier

Cooking dinner, whether for a simple weeknight meal or a fancy dinner party can be a lot of fun. But cooking and eating can also lead to a lot of mess and tons of time cleaning up. In fact, just thinking about cleaning up after dinner can be enough to put you off the idea of cooking completely. While I can’t make the unavoidable mess disappear, I can help make cleaning up after dinner easier. 

Before you start cooking – a few steps to make cleaning up after dinner much easier 

  • clean out the sink, put away dishes or other items that are sitting out and wipe down the counters. The goal is to start cooking with an empty sink, clear counters and an empty dishwasher, if you have one. 
  • make sure you have plenty of clean kitchen towels and dish towels ready to go. That will make cleaning up spills while you cook easier and ensure post-meal clean up goes off without a hitch. 
  • try to set out all of the measuring cups, utensils and cookware you’ll use, if you have enough space to do so. Then you won’t need to reach into drawers or cabinets with dirty hands. It also lets you check that everything you need for your recipes clean and ready to go.



clean up after dinner

Clean up tasks while cooking 

  • Pre-measure things like flour, sugar or spices all at once. That means you only need to (theoretically) get those items out once, and then you can put them away and be done with them. Doing that will help keep your workspace clear. It also means you can quickly wipe up any spills all at once. 
  • Clean up as you go. I know, that probably seems obvious. But keeping on top of your cooking dishes and attending to spills and spatters makes a big difference and doesn’t take much time. One great way to do this is to keep part of the sink or a dishpan full of warm, soapy water. Then you can put cooking tools in to soak. During a lull in cooking, the tools can either be rinsed and put into the dishwasher or hand-washed. I also keep a damp towel on the counter so I can wipe small spills up fast.
  • Use a baggie for scraps and trash. As you’re chopping, peeling, etc, having a handy spot for discards makes cleaning up easier. I use a freezer baggie for food scraps that can be made into stock and a plastic container for scraps that will go to our chickens or our worm farm. That helps reduce waste, lowers our feed bill for the chickens and means I don’t have to keep cleaning a mess of food scraps off the counter or cutting board. But even if you’re just throwing scraps away, having a discard bag is very helpful.

Cleaning up while you cook isn’t just about managing the workload. It’s also about making sure there’s a place to put the leftovers and dirty dishes from the table once dinner is over. It’s much easier to triage the plates, cups, serving dishes and flat ware when there’s open space. It also makes the post-dinner mess seem less overwhelming. It’s disheartening to walk into the kitchen after a lovely meal and see all of the cooking mess AND the dirty table dishes piled up.

Before you head to the table:

  • make sure the sink is full of fresh, warm, soapy water. That way you can scrape plates and put them into the sink to soak while you clear the rest of the table. Don’t soak china or silver for more than a few minutes. Letting it sit for a few minutes will keep food from drying on and make it easier to clean. That means to less wear on the surface. If you’re using very fragile china, be sure not to stack it and lay a clean towel in the sink to cushion it. 

  • fill a sturdy glass with warm soapy water and put it next to the sink. Dirty plates are scraped and go into the sink, dirty cutlery goes into the glass. This lets you keep all the cutlery in one place and let’s the soapy water get to work. No more fishing around for random forks in the sink!

  • set aside a larger container filled with soapy water to soak the serving utensils in. If I used a mixing bowl during cooking, I give it a very quick rinse and then use it for this purpose. 

  • check to be sure there’s plenty of room in your kitchen trash for scraping plates and serving dishes. If not, take out the trash and put in a fresh bag.

Take a few minutes to make a plan for after dinner is finished:

  • if you anticipate having leftovers, lay the containers for those out before you start the meal. Then you can bring serving dishes into the kitchen, put the contents straight into storage containers and the dishes into the sink.

  • designate a spot for dirty glassware. That way you can keep all the used glasses in one place and help prevent spills or breakage.

  • have a hamper or laundry bag ready for the table linen, if you don’t have a laundry shoot or easy access to the utility room.

For a larger party , I set up a small folding table in the kitchen to help corral the dirty dishes. Our kitchen isn’t big but once I’m done cooking, I don’t need access to the cabinet where our pots and pans live, so the table goes in front of those. 

These tips makes cleaning up after dinner so much easier,  whether you’re hand-washing or using a dishwasher. Spending a few minutes organizing lets me use our hand-wash-only china, silver and glassware without much extra work. Most of the time, everything soaks just long enough to wipe clean easily, which is better for me and better for the items. The goal isn’t to soak dishes or cutlery for very long, it’s too keep the food from drying on them and to make wiping them clean easier. 

It works well for just the two of us or for a larger dinner party. Having designated spots for the various dirty pieces also makes it easier to direct guests if they insist on helping clear the table.

Our kitchen and dining room are separate and we only do meals in the dining room. If you have an open floor plan or an eat-in kitchen, you can still put all of these techniques into practice, except maybe the extra folding table. With the kitchen in sight of you and your guests during dinner, keeping it tidy will be even more important, as will a good system for dealing with the end of meal dishes. 

Be sure to check out Five Ways to Make Hosting Easier.

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I’m a big believer in having a work system for household tasks, and preparing and eating dinner is no exception. Taking a few minutes to plan and prepare can save you a ton of time and energy after dinner. Do you have any tips for keeping up with kitchen messes or making clean up easier? If so, post them in the comments!