Say sayonara to stuck-on food.
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There’s nothing worse than loading and running your dishwasher, only to find your dishes still have pieces of food stuck on them. If you’ve ever had scrambled eggs stuck to a metal pan, or crusted-on brownie edges glued to your baking dish, you know the struggle.

But before you disassemble the dishwasher (or blame your spouse for not doing the pre-rinse), know this: The number-one reason your dishes remain dirty is because they aren’t loaded properly. I tapped Joseph Stephens of Birmingham-based Stephen’s Plumbing to find out the best way to tackle those hard-to-clean dishes once and for all.

How to load your dishwasher

Plates, serving bowls and other larger items should be placed on the lower rack where water can easily reach them. To do this, line plates in a row between the tines facing the water source.

You should also arrange plates in the front portion of the dishwasher (closest to the door) so that cycling water can easily flow between them. Bowls, cutting boards, and casserole pans placed in the front may block water from the spray arm and keep suds from circulating. Place these items towards the back, on the sides, or near the corners. And, of course, most importantly, don’t overload your dishwasher.

But what about giving your dishes a rinse before loading? Stephens explains, “While there is no need to rinse the dishes completely, large food particles should be scraped off before loading to avoid getting caught in the filter.”

He continues, “Some energy-efficient models are programed to complete the dishwashing cycle when sensors indicate that the dishes are clean. Therefore, a little grit and grime on your dishes is perfectly fine. Otherwise, your machine may finish the cycle too early.”

Should the utensils point up or down?

Forks and spoons should be loaded with the handles facing down while knives should have their handles facing up. If your silverware basket has individual slots, match like items together for quick unloading. However, if they are in open baskets, mix up forks, spoons and knives so they do not nest (turns out, spooning got that nickname for a reason!)

Which dishwasher detergent is best?

The jury’s still out on which type of detergent is best. Whether you choose pacs, tablets, pods, powders, or gels, there are many options on the market. Your best bet is to check your machine’s owner’s manual for recommendations.

You may also have to do some trial and error to see what works best for you. Consumer Reports recently tested the most popular detergents and found that detergent pacs clean better than gels. This is because most single units contain a pretreat solution, degreaser, bleach, or a rinse aid. When you don’t use an all-in-one pac, experts recommend a dish detergent booster to pretreat such as Lemi Shine Booster® to remove spots and film on dishes and glassware. They also highly recommend a rinse aid such as Finish® Jet Dry® for faster drying and spot removal.

I’m doing everything right, so why is my dishwasher still not cleaning?

If you find that you’re following proper loading techniques but your dishes still aren’t up to par,  Stephens suggests checking the filter and/or food trap (depending on your machine).

“Filters and food traps catch items that do not disintegrate or do not go down the drain such as bread ties, pet hair, egg shells, paper or produce stickers,” says Stephens. “A full food trap or blocked filter may prevent water from flowing through the dishwasher and from pumping water out the kitchen sink drain.”

And if all else fails, Stephen says, “Consider hiring a technician to service your machine.”