whole food ~ well made

simmering tomato sauce with meatballs

Baby Meatballs in Roasted Tomato Sauce

When she’s expecting a house full of people (her kids and grand kids mostly), my Mom makes up a giant pot of her fabulous meatballs in tomato sauce.

That way, no matter what time anyone shows up, she can ask her favorite question, “Would you like something to eat?”

I usually go for a meatball on a plate–tapas style, but everyone loves meatball subs (grinders, hoagies). Or, if we’re feeling patient, we can boil up some pasta and serve it the classic way as a spaghetti and meatball dinner.

spaghetti and meatballs closeup

Nah, I don’t remember that happening much… those meatballs seem to disappear well before sundown.

Comfort Foods from the Freezer

At this time of year, most of our family meals get inspired by daily foraging trips to the chest freezer in the basement. This week I found bags of tomatoes I’d roasted and frozen in bulk. Besides the fact that they were in the way, frozen vegetables always need using up before canned goods.

Roasting tomatoes is about the best way to maximize the flavor from even marginal tomatoes and so I knew I wouldn’t have to do much to make a yummy tomato sauce.

simmering tomato sauce with meatballs overhead

With a pound of grassfed ground beef from our cow share, I was half way to dinner.

Easier meatballs in tomato sauce

I know my Mom labors over those meatballs, mixing and forming and baking them before adding them to the sauce. A labor of love, of course.

But on a weeknight, I’ve got things to do, and I want to maximize the pots and my time. So, I resorted to a technique I’ve used before: rolling meatballs and dropping them right into a simmer sauce.

Granted, I’m all for browning meats in general, but there are some benefits to this streamlined method:

  • the meatballs build more flavor into the sauce
  • the meatballs stay moist and tender
  • only one pot required

How long to cook meatballs in tomato sauce?

Generally speaking, it takes 25 to 30 minutes to cook the meatballs to the recommended temperature of 165°F all the way to the center. But among other factors, meatball size matters.

meatball tasting with parmesan cheese

Unfortunately, you can’t tell a meatball is fully cooked by looking because the meat colors deceptively before it reaches the right temperature.The only reliable way to gauge doneness is to use an instant-read thermometer.

Or, play it safe and simmer those babies about 10 minutes longer than you think they need.

I make 1-ounce-sized meatballs for the very reason that they cook quicker, but also because we all end up eating less meat. Three meatballs per person is just 3 ounces per serving compared to two (or more!) 2-ounce (or bigger!) meatballs per serving.

the meatball that got away

So, you can also feed more people with just one pound of ground beef. Or have leftovers for those meatball subs I now can’t stop thinking about.

Even with a comfort food dinner that makes everyone happy, it’s all about balance.


and become a forager

spaghetti and meatballs closeup
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5 from 7 votes

Baby Meatballs in Roasted Tomato Sauce

Make meatballs any day of the week with this streamlined technique by cooking the meatballs right in a simple tomato sauce. Once that's done, you can take this any direction: meatball subs, baked ziti, with sauteed spinach or make a comfort classic: spaghetti and meatballs. I like to make small meatballs so they cook quicker and we all eat less meat.
Course Main Course
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 30 minutes
Total Time 45 minutes
Servings 6 people
Calories 279kcal
Author Lynne


For the tomato sauce:

  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram or basil
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes optional
  • 1 28-ounce can roasted whole peeled tomatoes or 3 cups homemade roasted tomatoes

For the meatballs:

  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup fine breadcrumbs
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 pound ground beef grassfed


  • Heat the olive oil in a stockpot, add the onion and cook just until it turns translucent, about 4 minutes. Add the tomato paste and garlic and cook for 2 minutes more.
  • Add the oregano, marjoram, salt, red pepper flakes, if using, and the tomatoes. Stir well to combine and bring to a steady simmer.
  • Use an immersion blender to puree the sauce to a texture you prefer. I go for slightly chunky. Taste the sauce for seasoning and continue to simmer while you make the meatballs.
  • Combine the garlic, egg, bread crumbs, oregano, salt and pepper with the ground beef in a mixing bowl. I used food service gloves to mix the meatballs, but you can also use bare hands or a spatula. Be sure to blend the mixture very well.
  • Use a tablespoon to portion small 1-ounce meatballs, roll them into balls and plop them into the simmering sauce. (For larger meatballs, simply portion to the desired size, roll them into uniform balls and drop them into the sauce.)
  • Continue portioning, rolling and dropping meatballs into the tomato sauce until all the mixture is used up. Gently stir the meatballs to cover them with the sauce.
  • Simmer for 25 to 30 minutes (larger meatballs will take up to 10 minutes longer), stirring occasionally before serving or cooling and storing for future use.


Since meatballs freeze so well I like to make a double batch of sauce and meatballs for an even easier dinner down the road.


Calories: 279kcal


  1. 5 stars
    Thanks for sharing Lynne… I didn’t know I could get ground beef that was grass fed, wow!

    1. Yeah, grassfed ground beef is widely available now in most major supermarkets. It is so much tastier than conventional beef!

  2. 5 stars
    Your meatballs look delicious, I love a one pot meal. I bet that tomato sauce was so tasty using your tomatoes from the summer and roasting them to bring out their full flavour.

    1. Thanks, Sarah! It’s all about the flavor–and doing the fewest number of dishes possible–right?

  3. Perfect! I’m smack in the middle of a whole 30, and meat sauce is becoming a please-everyone staple-love this simple meatball method! Adding to my meal plan for next week (and I second the bonuses of a cow share for meat all year long)

    1. Hi Sara, way to go! These meatballs do contain breadcrumbs, but if you just omit the breadcrumbs, the texture does change a little bit (I really tried it because I originally wanted this recipe to be Whole30 friendly) but they are wonderful! Let me know how it goes.

  4. Totally agree with you! Roasting tomatoes in order to make tomato sauce is a great idea 😉

    1. Thanks. I even do it with excellent tomatoes, Ilaria.

  5. 5 stars
    These meatballs look amazing! I haven’t made meatballs in sauce in such a long time. I’ve been looking for a good recipe, I’ll try yours.

    1. This meatball technique is how I started making meatballs more often. Hope you let me know if you try it, Tanya. Thanks and good eating!

  6. 5 stars
    You can never go wrong with a classic meatball. Perfect for pasta, subs….or as an appetizer too.

    1. So many occasions for meatballs. Thanks, Gloria.

  7. This looks really delicious. I can make this dish with ground chicken, right?

    1. Yes, Aish, you can make this with any ground meat. I made lamb meatballs just this weekend. Ground turkey or chicken would be an easy substitute for the ground beef, since the flavorings are so simple.

  8. Meatballs have been my favorite dish since I was a kid, it was always what I asked my mom for on my birthday. As an adult, I still love them but hate how long they take. Can’t wait to try your recipe for faster, easier baby meatballs!

    1. I’m so with you, Erica. I hope this technique will allow you to enjoy your favorite meal WAY more often!

  9. I really need to try making meatballs this way. I usually bake them and sometimes they turn a bit too crunchy. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Hope you do, Margot. These meatballs turn out mighty tender. I hope you’ll let me know how you like them!

  10. This is putting me in the mood for meatballs. .. and like you, I’ll take mine tapas style. I’ve never actually place them directly in the sauce to cook. . .but will need to try that next time.

    1. Give it a try, Lynn, and let me know. I think it makes the most tender and moist meatball.

  11. 5 stars
    These look like perfection! Totally making these for hubby!

    1. Well that sure makes me happy. Thanks Sarah. Hope you let me know how your DH likes ’em.

  12. One of my favorite foods. Nice recipe!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jacqueline. I could definitely go for a meatball just about anytime myself.

  13. Those are some mighty fine looks meatballs. Gonna have to try this one out!

    1. Hope you do and let me know how it goes, Derek! Thanks.

  14. My daughter loves meatballs and I’m always looking for new ways to change it up. I bet she will love these.

    1. Hope you’ll let me know, Winona. My youngest daughter appreciates that these meatballs have no onion in them, so it’s a win!

  15. 5 stars
    Love that you cook these in the sauce! I’m all about using fewer pans!

    1. It makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? Mind you, there are times when I want a nicely oven-browned meatball, but this is not one of them. Enjoy!

  16. 5 stars
    I also have been making meatballs forever and I completely love your recipe. I agree dropping the meatballs in sauce and letting them cook is the greatest way to make meatballs. yum!

    1. Glad you think so, Eileen!

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