Slow Cooker Italian Meatballs
These Easy Slow Cooker Italian Meatballs with homemade marinara sauce are a delicious, make ahead dinner! With a freezer meal option, you can make crockpot meatballs faster than ever!
This recipe uses two of my favorite kitchen tools for getting dinner on the table on busy days: your slow cooker and your freezer.
You can make these Italian meatballs ahead of time and put them in a freezer bag with marinara sauce ingredients. Then store them for up to three months in your freezer.
When you’re ready, thaw and then transfer the contents of the freezer bag to your crock pot and cook. You’ll have a home-cooked meal for almost no effort!
You can also cook and serve this Italian meatball recipe on the same day if you don’t want to make it a freezer meal. These meatballs are quick and easy to make. It will take about 15 minutes to mix up the meatball mixture and shape your meatballs and 5 minutes to prep the marinara sauce.
Why this is the best meatball recipe:
- The meatballs are baked at high temperature, so they are extra moist and juicy on the inside with nicely browned outsides.
- Simmering meatballs all day in your slow cooker gives both the meatballs and marinara sauce the best flavor.
- You can slow cook the meatballs and sauce right away or make them into a freezer meal to cook later.
How to make Italian meatballs
To make this slow cooker Italian meatballs recipe, you will start by making your meatballs. You’ll mix up all of the meatball ingredients except for the meat in a bowl. Once you add the meat to the mixture, you want to mix it until it’s just combined. This will ensure that your meatballs turn out soft and tender.
The best way to shape the meatballs into balls is to use your hands. If the mixture sticks to your hands, using slightly wet hands will help. Place the meatballs on a lightly oiled baking sheet and bake until cooked through. The cooking time will be 10-12 minutes for 1 1/2-inch meatballs, or a little longer if you make your meatballs larger.
Once your meatballs are baked, you can either slow cook them right away in your slow cooker or freeze them for later.
I like to make this a freezer to crock pot meal. I let the meatballs cool and then place them in a freezer bag with marinara sauce ingredients.
When I need an easy weeknight dinner I thaw the bag of meatballs in my refrigerator overnight. In the morning all that I have to do is transfer the bag contents to my slow cooker and turn it on. Seriously, having these crockpot meatballs in your freezer is the best thing ever when you are craving spaghetti and meatballs mid-week! For the times when I am all out of meatballs or need to get dinner on the table fast, I make my Instant Pot Spaghetti.
Do you have to bake meatballs before adding them to your slow cooker?
I strongly recommend that you bake your meatballs before you add them to your slow cooker. If you add the meatballs to your crock pot raw, they will cook through, but they will be lacking in flavor.
Baking the meatballs in the oven allows them to brown on the outside and sears in their juices. Browned meatballs are tastier meatballs.
If you cook meatballs from raw in a slow cooker, you will end up with an oily marinara sauce as the meatballs will release a lot of their fat into the sauce. Not good!
Do I have to cook these meatballs in the slow cooker?
You can serve these meatballs right from the oven if you wish. Just make sure that they are cooked through. Or you can add them to a pot of pasta sauce simmering on the stove.
What to serve with Italian meatballs
Serve these Italian meatballs with spaghetti or your favorite pasta shape, spaghetti squash or zucchini noodles. They are a tasty, comforting meal for any night of the week!
Tips for this Slow Cooker Italian Meatballs Recipe:
- Don’t skip the step of baking the meatballs in the oven. It’s essential for the best flavor and will prevent your slow cooker marinara sauce from being oily.
- You can use ground beef or ground turkey in this meatball recipe. I recommend using either 80% lean ground beef or 85% lean ground turkey. If you choose a leaner option your meatballs won’t have the best flavor and will be dryer.
- Here’s the handy freezer bag holder that I used in the photo above. Not necessary, but it makes it really easy to fill the freezer bag without spilling.
- Looking for more freezer to crockpot meals? Try my Slow Cooker Vegetarian Chili Mac and my Easy Slow Cooker Chicken Taco Soup!
Slow Cooker Italian Meatballs
For the meatballs:
- 1 egg
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1/3 cup Panko breadcrumbs
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- 1 pound 80% lean ground beef or ground turkey
For the marinara sauce:
- 1 cup chopped yellow onion
- 3 cloves garlic minced
- 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 15 ounce can tomato sauce
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon dried basil
- 1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning
- 1/4 teaspoon salt plus more to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper plus more to taste
- To make the meatballs, preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Lightly grease a baking sheet with olive oil.
- Combine egg, 2 cloves garlic, Panko, Parmesan, parsley, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a large bowl. Stir with a fork until well combined.
- Add the ground beef and mix until just combined. Do not over mix the meat mixture.
- Use your hands to shape into 1 1/2-inch meatballs and place on the greased baking sheet.
- Bake meatballs for 10-12 minutes, until they are cooked through (they should register at least 160 degrees F on an instant read thermometer).
- Transfer meatballs to slow cooker.
- Add all marinara sauce ingredients.
- Cover and cook on low for 6-8 hours.
- Remove the bay leaves and serve meatballs and sauce with pasta, spaghetti squash or veggie noodles.
- Make and bake the meatballs as directed above. Cool completely.
- Label a heavy-duty zip-top freezer bag with the recipe name, date, and slow cooking instructions.
- Combine all marinara sauce ingredients in the freezer bag. Add the cooled meatballs to the bag. Squeeze out as much air as possible and seal the bag.
- Freeze flat for up to 3 months.
- Thaw and then cook in your slow cooker as directed above.
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