Mozzarella Meatball Casserole

I’ll never forget an email I received from one of my best friends shortly after we graduated college. “I missed you,” the email began, “so I made meatballs.”

Mozzarella Meatball Casserole. FINALLY a healthy pasta recipe your entire family will love! Made with ground turkey, whole wheat pasta, spinach, and lots of fresh gooey mozzarella cheese
Although it sounds strange at first, when I reflect more deeply on my friend’s statement, I can hardly imagine a more genuine expression of affection than meatballs. They’re shaped tenderly by hand, rely on the bond of different ingredients, and exude feelings of comfort and familiarity. They’re a dish for a cozy evening, spent with the people you love, when food and company warm you inside and out.

A few weeks ago, the air was especially crisp and Ben was spending more evenings in his office than outside of it, so I decided that a batch of comfort food was in ordered. I recalled my friend’s statement and combined his suggestion of meatballs with my Midwestern upbringing’s definition of comfort food: casseroles. One giant skillet, a batch of homemade turkey meatballs, and a shower of fresh mozzarella cheese later, and today’s recipe for Mozzarella Meatball Casserole was born.

Mozzarella Meatball Casserole. Gooey mozzarella and zesty turkey meatballs combine to create a surprisingly healthy recipe that your entire family will love!

This meatball casserole recipe begins with zesty homemade turkey meatballs. I used a blend of Italian turkey sausage and ground turkey, so they are plenty juicy and offer loads of flavor, while still being lean and healthy.

Mozzarella Meatball Casserole. Gooey cheese, zesty turkey meatballs and pasta baked together into one incredible recipe your entire family will love!

The pasta is whole wheat, which is no more work to cook than regular white pasta but offers far greater health benefits in the protein, fiber, and nutrient departments. If you’ve struggled to eat whole wheat pasta in the past, I highly recommend DeLallo brand (not a sponsored post—I just really love their products). I’ve eaten every brand of whole wheat pasta on the market, and none compares to DeLallo for its pleasant flavor and texture. As you’ll see in a moment, my taste-testers didn’t believe me when I told them that the pasta was whole wheat.

To instantly up the health-factor of the meatball casserole further, I stirred in a pack of frozen, thawed spinach, whose mild taste is nearly imperceptible in the final dish, especially when combined with the casserole’s final flourish: fresh mozzarella both stirred into then noodles and layered in thick slices over the top. You’ll love the way the cheese oozes and stretches with every forkful.

By the time this meatball casserole was finished baking, the aroma of rich tomatoes, tender sausage, and melting cheese had transformed my kitchen into a little slice of Italy. Ben wasn’t home, but it felt wrong to keep this big pan of meatball casserole comfort all to myself. Meatballs are an expression of love; they need to be shared.

Mozzarella Meatball Casserole. Juicy turkey meatballs with whole wheat pasta and lots of gooey mozzarella cheese. Your entire family will love this recipe and it's healthy too!

I called up Ben’s parents and drove the meatball casserole over to their house for an impromptu dinner. I’m ecstatic to share that both of my unsuspecting taste testers had no idea that this meatball casserole was healthy. Ben’s mom didn’t believe me when I told her the pasta was whole wheat, and his dad was surprised to hear that the meatballs were made of turkey, not beef. The spinach was imperceptible too. This meatball casserole recipe is stealthy healthy comfort food at its finest.

Mozzarella Meatball Casserole also reheats beautifully, so it’s an excellent option for a make-ahead meal or leftovers throughout the week. It’s rich, hearty, and equally appropriate for a dinner party or a weeknight family meal.

Mozzarella Meatball Casserole. Made with turkey meatballs, this is healthy comfort food at its best! This recipe is good enough for a dinner party but fast enough for weeknight dinner

Mozzarella Meatball Casserole: the new way to say, “I love you,” “I miss you,” and “Hey, you deserve something special today.” Hallmark, you should be very, very nervous.

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Mozzarella Meatball Casserole

Gooey mozzarella cheese, zesty turkey meatballs and pasta combine to create an easy meatball casserole that's delicious, comforting and freezer friendly!


Yield: Serves 6

Total Time: 1 hour

Ingredients:


  • 6 ounces whole wheat pasta, any shape you love

  • 2-3 slices whole wheat bread (for making 1 cup fresh breadcrumbs)

  • 1 pound extra lean ground turkey

  • 8 ounces spicy Italian turkey sausage, casings removed

  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten.

  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided, plus additional for tossing the pasta

  • 1 small yellow onion

  • 2 cloves garlic, minced

  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano

  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

  • 32 ounces prepared red pasta sauce (about 3 1/2 cups)

  • 10 ounces frozen chopped spinach, squeezed dry

  • 8 ounces fresh mozzarella, half shredded or torn, half cut into thin slices (part skim is OK but do not use fat free), about 2 cups total


Directions:


  1. Place a rack in the center of your oven and preheat to 400 degrees F.

  2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook pasta until barely al dente according to package instructions. You want it to still be firmer than you would ordinarily eat it, as it will cook further in the oven. Drain, toss with a bit of olive oil to prevent sticking, then set aside.

  3. Pulse the bread slices in a food processor until coarse crumbs form. Measure 3/4 cup crumbs into a large mixing bowl. Add the ground turkey, turkey sausage, egg, salt, Parmesan, and parsley. With your fingers or two forks, mix lightly until the ingredients are combined, being careful not to compact the meat. Form the mixture into 2-inch balls. You should have about 28 or so balls total.

  4. Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil in a large, deep, oven proof skillet over medium high. Add the meatballs, then cook, turning a few times, until all sides are browned, about 10 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer the meatballs to a plate.

  5. To the skillet, add the remaining 1/2 tablespoon olive oil. Add the onion and cook until beginning to brown and soften, about 4 minutes, then add the garlic, oregano, and red pepper flakes. Cook just until fragrant, about 30 seconds, then add the jarred pasta sauce and spinach. Return the meatballs to the pan and let simmer in the sauce until they are cooked through, about 20 minutes.

  6. Once the meatballs are cooked, add the drained pasta and the 4 ounces shredded mozzarella to the skillet with the meatballs and sauce, then gently stir to combine. Top with the remaining 4 ounces sliced mozzarella cheese, then transfer the skillet to your oven. Bake until the cheese is melted and lightly crisp on top and the edges are bubbling, 15-20 minutes. Let rest 5 minutes, then enjoy!


Leftover meatball casserole can be refrigerated for up to five days or frozen for three months (thaw overnight in the refrigerator). Reheat gently in the microwave, with extra tomato sauce to prevent the casserole from drying out.


All images and text ©/Well Plated.

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About Erin Clarke

I’m fearlessly dedicated to making healthy food taste incredible. Wearer of plaid, travel enthusiast, and firmly convinced that sweets and veggies both deserve a place at the table. MORE ABOUT ERIN…

21 comments

  1. Hallmark should be nervous, indeed! haha. So funny that your friend said that, because I can totally relate! We just moved away from my husband’s family and to make up for our homesickness, we’ve been making his yaya’s famous meatballs. Meatballs are definitely one of the most love-filled foods! 

  2. This is one EPIC casserole!! As much as I’m not looking forward to the super cold days ahead, I am pretty excited about the return of what I like to call “casserole season.” This looks like the epitome of comfort food, and I can’t wait to try it!

  3. Friend, this casserole looks amazeballs! Pun fully intended. Yes, I dread the cold weather too, but the hearty and comforting food make it worth it! 

  4. You deserve an award for all your beginner one liners. And these meatballs.

  5. Looks so yummy! Would be great weekend dinner.. Yummy!

  6. This recipe sounds amazing for a weeknight dinner because it contains three of my favorite things: mozzarella, meatballs, and PASTA :)

    Dani | http://www.styledvariety.com

  7. Looks hearty and yummy!! I love meatballs. A childhood favorite of mine.

  8. Ahhh I agree, there aren’t  many foods more comforting than meatballs. It’s gloomy, chilly and my stomach is growling something serious, and this meatball casserole would hit the spot!

  9. Ahhh I agree, there aren’t  many foods more comforting than meatballs. It’s gloomy, chilly and my stomach is growling something serious, and this meatball casserole would hit the spot!

  10. What’s good about meatballs is you can prepare them ahead of time, stuck them in the freezer and just take it when needed. Lesser time when making lunch or dinner. :)

  11. Haha, you’re so funny and these meatballs look killer!

  12. This casserole sounds wonderful.  However, I do have a  question: the recipe calls for 1 (x-oz.) jar of prepared tomato sauce.  By that do you mean pasta sauce?  And what actual size jar of sauce should it be?  Thanks!  :-)

  13. Thanks, Erin!!

  14. oh this looks  so yummy!!

  15. Delicious!!!! and now I need meatballs!!!!

  16. Healthy, comforting & delicious – my ideal meal this time of year! Looks so good! 

  17. Erin, I noticed a few things about the recipe — and have a couple of comments. 

    On the ingredient list, it reads prepared tomato sauce (so I bought tomato sauce, no salt added) but the body of the recipe reads prepared marinara sauce which makes more sense. I used a bottle of spaghetti sauce and added a little of the tomato sauce to get to 32 ounces.

    The ingredient list mentions 10 oz. of frozen cut spinach, but the directions omitted when to put it in. I added it to the sauce as it was simmering.

    I thought that 6 oz. was way too small amount of pasta —  With all the meatballs, I used closer to 12 oz. 

    Finally, I thought 400 degrees was too hot  — I am guessing all we are trying to do is melt the cheese on top? I adjusted the time and temp — 

    It turned out great, but just wanted to include my comments. And, as always, maybe I missed something.

    Thanks! I enjoy your website, your comments, and suggestions (nice that you included that part skim cheese is OK but not fat free. That type of information is helpful for those of us who want to cut calories wherever possible but not lose the flavor of the dish. 

  18. Just made this dish last night for dinner and it is INCREDIBLE.  My husband, son, and I all loved it!  Those meatballs alone are freaking delicious and I could have had a whole plate of those for dinner :)  My husband has the idea to made those meatballs again, but try forming them into tiny balls and put them on top of pizza as a topping! I tend to agree that those would make an awesome pizza topping… :) I left out the red pepper flakes and increased the amount of pasta noodles slightly, but other than that I made the recipe exactly as written.  It’s going into our regular rotation for sure.  Erin, I am such a big fan of yours!  This food blog has become my favorite go-to place to find yummy healthy recipes.  If you ever happen to be in Salt Lake City, Utah, doing a food demonstration or tour or anything, I seriously want to meet you!   

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