People who spend more time preparing and cooking meals are more likely to have healthier diets, says a new study.

Those who spent the least time on food preparation also spent the most money on food away from home and were more likely to eat at fast food restaurants, the authors found.

“We've known for a long time that cooking and being able to prepare your own food is associated with eating a healthier diet and it sort of just make sense, but there actually isn't much research in the area” Pablo Monsivais told Reuters Health.

Monsivais, from the Center for Diet and Activity Research at the University of Cambridge in the UK, led the new study.

His team used survey information from 1,319 participants in the Seattle Obesity Study, conducted from 2008 to 2009. All were the main food providers in their households. They were asked about cooking habits, eating habits, food spending and restaurant use.

“One of the measurements that we had was the amount of time that people spend on food preparation - cooking and cleaning - the things that go into making a meal,” Monsivais said.

Participants were asked how much time they spent on food preparation each day: less than an hour, one to two hours, or more than two hours.

Participants who spent the most time in the kitchen tended to be white, younger married women. They also had larger families and more household income, but were less likely to be employed, the authors reported in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

People who spent the most time cooking meals consumed at least eight servings of fruit and 13 servings of vegetables per week, the authors found. Those who spent the least amount of time preparing meals ate on average six servings of fruit and just under 11 servings of vegetables per week.

When it came to weekly food spending, those who spent the most time cooking spent about $7 less for each family member each week.

The study team also found that people who spent less than an hour per day cooking were almost twice as likely to visit fast food restaurants every week compared to those who spent the most time cooking.

Monsivais said healthy eating might have an associated time “cost” that people need to recognize.

“That’s not to say it isn’t something we should be spending time on - just that we should be aware up front that if we have intentions of having a healthier diet it might be the case that we just have to spend more time in the kitchen to make that possible,” he said.

“I think some of the most creative people (with cookbooks and cooking shows) are showing people how to make healthy meals by doing it in a way that's realistic in the sense of the economics of food and how much time people tend to have for making meals,” Monsivais said.

The researchers say their results don’t prove time spent on food prep translates to healthier diets. It’s possible that people who eat healthier just like to spend more time preparing food.

But if time is a critical ingredient in a healthier diet, they write, public programs to encourage better eating need to take that into account to make the “true costs of healthier diets more realistic” and to help improve food-assistance programs.

Lori Rosenthal, a dietician at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, said the study highlights the need for more nutrition education and teaching on how to prepare meals quickly and more cost effectively.

“When you think about families where both parents are working, it's easy to grab something and bring it home to your family, it's a lot faster than preparing something,” said Rosenthal, who wasn’t involved in the new study.

“So that's why it's really important to teach people techniques that can cut the time down so they will be cooking and preparing meals instead of buying everything and also how to choose healthier options when they do buy things out of the home,” Rosenthal added.

Rosenthal said planning is the key to success for eating healthy, saving money and saving time.

“Sit down and figure out what you are going to eat for the week – breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks – and make a grocery list so you can buy the things you need in advance,” she said. And look for things that are on sale when preparing a grocery list, she added.

“Even right after you go grocery shopping clean the vegetables, cut them up, separate things into Ziploc bags, have it set up for yourself, so it’s faster,” she said.

Another time saver Rosenthal recommends is pre-preparing meals or cooking foods in larger batches and freezing them in portions.

“You basically have healthy homemade frozen dinners,” she said.

Rosenthal also suggests using slow cookers and making one-pot meals to save on clean-up time.