It’s the kind of comfort food you pine for when it’s gray and cloudy outside.
There’s not too much heat to make you want to avoid using the oven.
And mashed potatoes on the side sound just right.
In other words, it’s fair to say that when it’s cloudy, there’s always a chance of…
You see where I’m going with this, right?
When it’s gray and cloudy, there’s a chance of REAL meatballs.
We watched the movie of that name as a family event on a wintery day, and although I love a good snuggle with any of my kids, I’m really more a fan of productive work as quality time. I’d rather do a puzzle or dust a bedroom than pretend play or electronic entertainment any day.
That applies to the kitchen, too – even though I struggle with the slow-down of inviting my kids to help me cook, I love spending time with them doing something that ultimately has to happen anyway to feed our family. And of course I love the bonus of teaching them real-life skills that will help them become responsible adults!
This recipe is a great one for cooking with children, because there are so many parts to do that everyone in the family can have a job for sure.
Let’s talk recipes.
Years ago I shared my method for making meatloaf and meatballs, and in the post I called it a “choose your own adventure” because I basically just listed options for meatloaf and meatball ingredients, described the purpose of each, and gave ranges for the amounts you could use and ideas to scale it for batch cooking. It was a total old school post and needed new photos big time, but I was excited to spruce it up so it wasn’t embarrassing to share on social media.
Imagine my surprise when a member of my team said, “This post is basically useless. It says like, nothing.”
I thought it was just a personality difference (and maybe it is) so we asked on Facebook whether people preferred recipes with exact amounts or more like “framework” recipes that give a general pattern and lots of flavor choices.
To put it simply, I lost.
The vast majority want actual measurements, and I realized that, in the busy moment of dinner, I’m the same way. I love to know how to adapt the ingredients and amounts, but I need to just plug and play when it’s go-time.
So now I get to re-do the meatball and meatloaf ingredients in this post, just for you busy moms!
But I still have a soft spot for my “framework” recipe SO I’m going to offer options after the plug-and-play format to help you know all the various seasoning combos you could try, substitutions for the liquid and dry binders, how much liver you might be able to hide in it, and our recent education on what to put in meatloaf instead of eggs (now that we have a child who definitely reacts violently to eggs).
From Classic to Healthy: My Meatloaf Recipe History
My mom’s meatloaf growing up contained all the basics: ground beef, oatmeal, eggs, and ketchup. I’m guessing there were other parts, too, but those are the essentials. I never helped her make one, so when I grew up I struck out on my own. The first meatball/meatloaf recipe I tried was from 30-Day Gourmet’s Freezer Cookbook.
I was impressed and inspired by the fact that the authors make their meat-mix in a 10-gallon Rubbermaid tub. That’s a serious amount of meat. My receptacle of choice is fondly referred to as the “mondo bowl” because that’s how I described what I wanted on my Christmas list a few years back.
My mondo bowl makes big batches easy, and I always make a big batch when I make meat-mix.
Why Make Huge Batches of Meatballs
- Fewer dishes (always my goal!)
- When meat’s on sale, you might as well make it into meat-mix (or, hello, buying a side of beef!).
- It’s more fun to mix by hand when the meat hasn’t been frozen and thawed, plus you can choose to freeze some raw if you’d like.
- Streamlines planning – if you want to use veggies or leftover rice, you can do it once for all.
- Turn the oven on once and cook it all up to save energy.
- Meatballs are my ultimate favorite “on-hand” item for the freezer, because you don’t even have to thaw them. You can walk in the door and have dinner on the table in 15 minutes. (Maybe 20…I’m a bit time-challenged!)
- It’s cool to say, “I made 10 pounds of meatloaf last night. What did you do?”
- Once your hands are covered in raw meat, you can’t chase children around and stop them from wreaking havoc or leaving the house. Some like to make sure hubby’s home and just get it over with!
- Did I mention reusing loaf pans and cookie sheets makes fewer dishes?
- And finally – as fun and uplifting as it is to sink your hands in a huge bowl of raw meat, it’s kind of nice to get that over with all in one day, too.
Kid-Friendly Cooking: the Healthy Version of Meatloaf & Meatballs Works!
I joked above that you want to make sure the kids don’t take advantage of your meat-y hands and cause mischief. The best way to keep them out of mischief? Get them in the kitchen!
Check out all these jobs kids can do to streamline the meatball recipe:
- Grate carrots or zucchini (with a manual grater or feeding them into a food processor)
- Mash the cooked sweet potato or squash
- Crack eggs or mix up flax-egg substitute
- Line trays with parchment paper
- Measure spices into a prep bowl so you can just grab and dump while your hands are in the meat.
- For that matter, children can be your vital assistants and pour everything into the bowl while you mix! (I’m squeamish about young children working with raw meat, which may be baseless. If you are braver than I, and I know many of you are, let the kids dig their hands right in! Just promise me you’ll help them wash their hands thoroughly.)
- If your kids get into the raw meat, they’ll love helping you form the balls too.
- Kids who can read a recipe can make a simple homemade sauce to top the meatballs while you’re tied up in the batch cooking.
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Recipe for Easy Baked Meatballs – Whether it’s Cloudy or NotPrint
- 1.5lbs. ground beef (or mix of beef and pork)
- 2/3 c. cooked brown rice
- 1/3 c. tomato sauce
- 1/3 c. cooked, mashed, sweet potato or squash
- 1/2–1 c. shredded carrots or zucchini
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 c. diced onion
- 2 cloves garlic, minced or 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1/2 tsp. basil
- 1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
- 1/2 tsp. thyme
- First: prepare any cookie sheets or loaf pans you’re going to use.
- Then throw everything into your mondo-est bowl, take your wedding rings off, plunge hands into mess and mix until uniform.
- Helpful mom hint: Make sure the kids aren’t going to take advantage of your raw meat hands being stuck in the bowl for a few minutes!
- A batch with 1.5 lbs of meat will make one large meatloaf OR two small/medium loaves OR about 60 walnut-sized meatballs. I make the meatballs either with my hands or an ice cream scoop, depending on my mood and what I got out before getting meaty.
- To bake meatloaf: Pack meat-mix into a loaf pan and bake at 350F for one hour or until no longer pink in the center. I recommend leaving extra time before dinner in case your loaf needs more time because it’s bigger than a standard one-hour loaf, or you’ll be saying, “Family, we’re going to start with salads tonight…because the meatloaf isn’t quite done yet…” Cool 10 minutes to slice (or be cool with it falling apart on the plate!)
- To bake meatballs: Place on baking sheet (I line it with parchment paper for easy clean-up as these are incredibly messy little buggers) and bake at 375F for 20-30 minutes until no pink in center. If you’re baking a batch with a loaf or two, just bake at 350F and make it work!
- You can bake a lot at once, just swap from the bottom to top shelves equally. This will take a little bit of math if you do balls and loaves at the same time.
- To use meatballs in soup: Bring some homemade stock to a boil with some veggies and herbs. Add the meatballs (about the size of a bouncy ball or slightly larger) right into the broth, and it will only take about 5 minutes for them to be cooked through! Check one by cutting it in half and looking for pink. (For you exact recipe people, I got your back again – here’s a great meatball soup recipe that comes together in almost no time at all!)
To freeze meatloaf (options):
- Freeze raw in the loaf pan. You can put freezer paper under it so that you can lift the loaf out once frozen and reclaim your loaf pan. Thaw completely in the refrigerator before baking with above directions.
- Freeze whole, cooked meatloaf, cooled well, in a plastic bag with all the air sucked out of it with a straw. Thaw completely before baking at 350F for 30-60 minutes until heated through.
- Cool cooked meatloaf, then slice and freeze slices on a cookie sheet. Transfer to a plastic bag for storage once frozen. To bake, lay slices flat on a cookie sheet and bake at 350, about 15 minutes if already thawed, 30+ minutes if frozen. (You’ll want to use a sauce if you freeze slices as they’ll get a bit dry. You can pour the sauce on them right away in the oven to heat all together)
- To freeze meatballs: Freeze individually on a baking sheet, then transfer to a plastic bag for storage. You can usually get out the number you want for a meal and put them (frozen) in a pot of spaghetti sauce to heat. If you want meatballs with gravy or sauce, just place them on a baking sheet and follow the directions for sliced meatloaf.
No cooked rice on hand? Use dry oatmeal (although for some, uncooked oats are hard on the digestion).
Grain-free? Subfor the rice.
What to do instead of eggs? It does work to use the basic “flax egg” substitute that is often seen for baking: Mix 1 Tbs. ground flax seed with 3 Tbs. hot water. Refrigerate mixture for 15 minutes to gel up before adding to the meatloaf. (That ratio is for one egg, so if you’re using more than a pound of meat, double it, and so on for larger batches.)
No tomatoes in a meatloaf? Oh yes, totally possible. Just use pureed orange veggies like sweet potato or squash in place of the tomato sauce. If you’re going to use them in soup or cook in a sauce, you can skip the saucy ingredient altogether.
Want to add liver? Just be careful – liver in meatloaf can get overpowering if you use too much. I recommend not a speck more than 1/5 pound for every 1 pound of other ground meat. You can finely chop it raw or “grind” it yourself in a food processor. I have other ideas for eating beef liver without tasting it too, in case you need to use up the rest of the piece! And if the liver flavah gets you every time no matter how you try to hide it, do what I do 90% of the time and grab liver capsules from our sponsor, Vital Proteins.
I add veggies for a healthy boost to the meatloaf/meatballs, but you can skip it or swap out other veggies at your leisure (see below).
Seasoning variety: The garlic, onion, and salt will make a fine meatloaf without anything else, and especially if you’re using these healthy meatballs in a flavorful sauce, you can either omit the herbs or swap them for other flavors.
2 Tools for Real Food Success:
It’s never easy to keep up with real food goals! If my meal isn’t planned ahead and/or I don’t have the right food on hand, it’s SO tempting to give up and grab convenience food!
I have to almost trick myself into getting it right sometimes…like this:
I love my raw milk farm, and they usually have beef for me too – but not all the cuts. And chicken is hard to come by. And pork is hit or miss.
I’m sure you’ve experienced the same sourcing frustrations!
That’s why I’m always grateful that there’s an online source of incredibly high quality meat that I can always count on. A box from Butcher Box is guaranteed to be grassfed/organic/pastured/free range = all the labels important to your family’s health!
If you live in an area (like my mom) where organic local farms are nowhere to be found or have trouble sourcing certain meats or cuts, Butcher Box has you covered.
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But if I forget to plan ahead, all that amazing meat just sits in the freezer! Enter Real Plans, an online meal planning software that is probably smarter than I am.
I can enter that cut of meat along with my food restrictions and find the perfect meal, then generate a shopping list, multiply it by 4 if we have company, and enter my own fav recipes too.
Real Plans takes the stress out of meal planning and puts the nourishing food BACK on your table. There’s a plan for every diet type:
Perfect Meatloaf & Meatball Ingredients to Try
If you’ve read down this far, you’re probably my type of switch-it-up cook who is waiting for that framework recipe. You’ve made it!
The basics of a good meatloaf or meatball are as follows:
|Ingredient||Options||Amount (dbl, triple, etc as needed)|
|Ground Meat||Often a mixture of beef, turkey, and even pork||1.5 lbs|
|Grains||Dry oatmeal, cooked brown rice, bread crumbs, almond flour (bet you could use barley but haven’t tried it)||2/3-1 cup|
|Liquid binding agent, often tomato-based||Ketchup, tomato sauce, pureed orange vegetable||2/3 cup|
|Eggs||Whole eggs keep everything from falling apart! Some people add milk, too.|
OR: Create 2 flax eggs with 2 Tbs. ground flax and 6 Tbs. warm water.
|Onion and garlic||For fla-vah and super food power||½ cup diced onion, 2 cloves garlic or ½ t. garlic powder|
|Herbs and spices||Endless varieties: Italian seasoning, Mexican kick, pre-mixed herb blends, simple parsley or thyme||Totally optional, but here’s what I use:|
½ tsp. basil
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
½ tsp. thyme
|Sneaky veggies (optional)||What do you want to add? Shredded zucchini? Finely diced carrots? Broccoli stems? Colored peppers? Puree-of-veggie-what?||Just don’t overdo it and add everything in your fridge, or you’ll have veggie balls with a hint of meat.|
|Sneaky organ meats (clearly optional!)||Cooked liver chunks from your beef stock, ground beef heart (no more than ¼ lb per 1.5 lbs of meat), or try the contents of a few Beef Liver Capsules from Vital Proteins|
Meatballs for a Cloudy Day?
So parents, perhaps your next cloudy day activity is to read the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs book (’cause it was a book far before it was a movie, and they’re totally different, amen?), make 10 pounds of meatloaf and meatballs as a family activity, and then reward yourselves with the movie during dinner!