8 Best Frozen Meatballs, Recommended by a Nutritionist
Meatballs are everyone's favorite comfort food, suited for both casual weeknights on the couch and a dinner party. Making them at home, however, can be quite a task, depending on how elaborate your ingredient list is. This is why frozen meatballs are extra convenient, and can be a quick way of adding some extra protein to dinner on a time-crunch.
Maybe this is why frozen meatballs are such a huge category, featuring handfuls of different options for each style of ball—from chicken and turkey, to the more classic Italian-style beef and pork meatballs. And in the last decade, there has been a proliferation of plant-based and vegan meatballs, too.
How to choose the best meatballs
With such a big category comes a wide range of quality, spanning from options with fillers and sub-par meats to hand-made, ethical-produced ones. As always, a good rule of thumb when picking the healthiest groceries is to look for a short ingredient list, with as many familiar ingredients as possible. This was an important criteria when parsing through the frozen aisle in search of the best meatball.
Here's what else to look for when choosing frozen meatballs:
- Avoid fillers. It goes without saying that meat should be the most prevalent ingredient in non-vegetarian meatballs. Look out for lots of breadcrumbs, and other low-quality fillers like cellulose, which increase the portion size but not nutrition. Some meatballs even include artificial coloring and questionable additives.
- Avoid soy in meatless meatball options. While there are some meatless meatballs listed in this best and worst list, a meatless option isn't always the better one. In fact, many meatless meatballs rely on soy in various forms, instead of utilizing a variety of more nutritious sources of protein like beans, quinoa, or vegetables.
- Look for low amounts of sodium. Avoid brands where one serving size exceeds 20 percent of the recommended daily sodium intake.
- Look for low amounts of saturated fat. High amounts of saturated fat indicate that fattier cuts of meat were used in the product, or that there are additional soybean oils used in frying methods before freezing.
- Avoid the sauces. Whichever frozen meatballs end up in your freezer, remember that opting for a quality meatball only gets you halfway to healthy. Pre-made sauces in frozen meatball packets can sneakily add tons of sugar and fat to your meal.
The eight healthiest meatballs you can buy
1. Al Fresco All Natural Chicken Meatballs, Tomato and Basil
These chicken meatballs are made from a long list of wholesome ingredients you can recognize, like skinless chicken meat, asiago cheese, mozzarella, herbs, tomatoes, lemon peel, olive oil, and spices and seasonings. They're also one of the more sodium-conscious picks at only 380 mg per serving—a serving which includes four meatballs instead of three. You're getting a good amount of protein at 16 grams, and although that come with 3 grams of saturated fat, the high quality ingredients outweigh this con.
2. Amy's Meatless Veggie Meatballs
Amy's Meatless Meatballs are made with organic vegetables and grains—and they're vegan. The ingredient list packs a range of whole foods like red rice, tofu, quinoa, lentils, and bell peppers. With a surprising 14 grams of protein per serving and 3 grams of fiber, this meatless pick stacks up well against the non-vegan options. While the obvious 24 grams of carbs (and 3 grams of sugar from the agave) should be considered when deciding what to cook alongside your meatballs, the quality ingredients are important. (Brownie points for the 100 percent recycled paperboard packaging.)
3. Bove's All Natural Italian Style Beef Meatballs
With a simple ingredient list that includes grass-fed beef, Bove's meatballs rely on a combination of garlic, onions, and cheese for their incredible flavor. They're made without soy protein, hormones, and antibiotics, and are lower in calories than many other options (especially for traditional beef meatballs). The sodium levels were lower than many of the options we scouted as well.
4. Nature's Promise Turkey Meatballs
Solidly 'middle of the road', these turkey meatballs have relatively basic homemade-style ingredients like turkey, onion, olive oil, and breadcrumbs (except the maltodextrin). They're a good source of protein for only 180 calories per serving. The fat content is on the higher end, thought, so enjoy them in moderation.
5. Simply Balanced Grass-Fed Frozen Beef Meatballs
Target's in-house food brand Simply Balanced makes a great meatball. The ingredient list is comprised of grass-fed beef, eggs, water, rice flour, onions, and cheese, with a touch of sugar and natural flavors. At 16 grams of fat and 7 grams of saturated fat, these meatballs are definitely fattier compared to the chicken, turkey, meatless versions, but they're right in line with nearly all of the other beef meatballs on the list.
6. Nature's Rancher Fully Cooked Turkey Meatballs
These turkey meatballs are made with ricotta cheese, which makes them more tender and light than your typical frozen options. They're available at Whole Foods, which automatically means they've been vetted against the chain's rigorous quality standards. While they're lower in fat than most beef meatballs, they're not fantastic when it comes to the sodium content. With that said, it's all about what you're pairing them with, and eating for the rest of the day. There's no reason not to enjoy these while watching your sodium intake at other meals.
7. 365 Everyday Value Meatless Meatballs
Whole Foods' house brand 365 uses textured wheat protein, vital wheat gluten, bread crumbs, and pea fiber to build out these vegan balls. A low calorie count for a serving of four, only 4 grams of fat, and an awesome 12 grams of protein, this is a solid choice from a numbers nutritional angles. While it would be nice to see more whole food ingredients like vegetables or beans listed in the ingredients list, this is a solid 'meatless' pick.
8. Earth Grown Zesty Italian Meatless Meatballs
Aldi's premium in-house brand Earth Grown makes vegan meatballs with a nice amount of protein for a plant-based option. However, there are some less than stellar ingredients hiding on that list, too. We could take a pass on the caramel color and methyl ethyl cellulose, which is used as a bulking agent, thickener, and emulsifier in foods. It seems like there's a missed opportunity for a more fiber-rich, vegetable-filled ball. However, this is still a much better option than most frozen meatballs.
The worst frozen meatballs you can buy
1. Johnsonville 3 Cheese Italian Style Meatballs
High levels of saturated fat and sodium, paired with an ingredient label that contains preservatives BHT and BHA, make this one of the worst health picks of the frozen meatball bunch. Both BHT and BHA have been linked to potential carcinogenic properties. The addition of powdered cellulose and soybean oil shortening continue to make it less than stellar. Coming in at 290 calories for 3 meatballs, with 26 grams of fat and 560 milligrams of sodium, they're just not a great choice.
2. Ball Park Flame Grilled Beef and Bacon Meatballs
Since there's beef and bacon in the mix, I think we know where the nutrition label is headed on this one. These are highly processed meatballs with one of the longest ingredient lists out there. From isolated oat product and isolated soy product, to the suspicious "grill flavor" and sodium erythrorbate (a color fixative in cured meats), there's just a lot of stuff here you don't want in your food. The 750 milligrams of sodium per serving doesn't help matters.
3. Trader Joe's Italian Style Flame Broiled Meatballs
Known for their frozen foods sections, unfortunately Trader Joe's missed the mark on their meatballs, which don't bode well nutritionally. With 20 grams of fat, 8 grams of saturated fat, and even trans fats making the list, you're better off just making the most indulgent meatballs at home. Coming in at 240 calories for two meatballs, they may be delicious, but they're simply not a solid choice.
4. FarmRich Flame Broiled Homestyle Beef & Pork Meatballs
If you're team 'more meatballs is better', you'll like this option for its realistic six meatball serving size. Unfortunately it also comes with 21 grams of fat, high saturated fat levels, one of the highest sugar levels, and some pretty mediocre ingredients (soy protein concentrate, soybean oil, alongside animal protein—and that could really be anything).
5. Fast Fixin' Beef Meatballs
Set in vegetable oil, these highly processed frozen meatballs have 18 grams of fat and 7 grams of saturated fat. While they do have one of the lowest sodium levels of the group, the ingredient list (including caramel color, a starch mix, and soybean oil) is just inexcusable.
6. Bell & Evans Air Chilled Parmesan Breaded Chicken Meatballs with Mozzarella
While Bell & Evans goes the extra mile of sharing information about their humane farming practices with their consumers, the ingredient list on their meatballs reveals less-than-ideal nutrition facts. It starts off well enough with chicken, cheese, and spices, but goes downhill when you realize the product has been flash-fried and contains chicken skin as well as soybean oil. It seems like a solid pick for those who are looking for a convenient treat and also care about animal welfare. If you opt for these meatballs, however, I urge you not to fry them any further.