Slow Cooker Meatballs in Tomato Sauce

Family-FriendlySlow CookerMeatballs

This easy slow cooker meatball recipe uses a blend of beef and Italian turkey sausage for a lightened-up version that still makes a flavorful, juicy meatball. Perfect for a weeknight dinner served over pasta or with toothpicks at tailgating party!

Photography Credit: Alison Bickel

Featured in 14 Recipes That Make the Most Canned Tomatoes

Meatballs should be two things: juicy and flavorful. This recipe meets both criteria, and the best part is, you make them in the slow cooker.

You can expect to get about 35 to 40 golf ball-sized meatballs. This is the perfect size to serve over pasta for a weeknight dinner (and freeze some for later), set out for a party snack (football season anyone?), or feed an army for Sunday supper.

The sauce is made from pantry staples like canned crushed tomatoes, with a little crushed red pepper to add just a bit of heat. My kids are 8 and 10 years old, and it wasn’t too spicy for them. Of course, if you don’t want to live life on the spicy side you can always leave it out.

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Meatballs in a slow cooker filled with tomato sauce with a spoon lifting a meatball out of the sauce.


I opted to use lean meat for this recipe – 90/10 beef and turkey sausage. The meatballs stay juicy even after the long simmer in the sauce without the extra fat. The lower fat content still makes tender, flavorful meatballs because the fat that is there doesn’t really cook off.

I can easily find one-pound packages of ground Italian turkey sausage at my local supermarket. If that’s not available try Italian turkey sausage in the casings, and just remove the casings by cutting them open with a knife.

If you can’t find either, just grab some Italian pork sausage. If it’s in the casings, just remove them and mix the ground sausage in with the beef.

If you use a higher fat beef or pork you may have some fat floating on top of the sauce. This is totally fine, just stir it into the sauce before serving. It adds flavor, and that little bit of fat shouldn’t make the sauce greasy.


I honestly just grabbed pre-shredded Romano cheese from the deli, but you can also go for the real deal and buy a wedge of Pecorino Romano cheese, and grate it yourself. Make sure you use the small holes on your grater.

If you can’t find Romano (or you don’t like it) feel free to substitute mozzarella, Parmesan or asiago cheese.

A bowl of meatballs with a platter of meatballs behind it.


These meatballs be quite sticky. Here are two tips to make the meatballs easier to shape:

  • If you keep your hands wet with water, it is much easier to roll the meat into balls.
  • Alternatively, you can use a small #40 cookie scoop. I like to make meatballs that are smaller than a golf ball.


You can cook them on high for 4 to 5 hours or low for 8 to 10 hours.

Best Slow cooker italian meatballs in tomato sauce piled onto a white serving platter with a spoon.


The cooked meatballs can be kept in the tomato sauce in an airtight container in the fridge for up to five days.

To freeze, put the cooked meatballs in a dish, sauce and all, and pop them in the freezer. You’ll be happy to have some for later. When you’re planning dinner, just take them out and let them thaw for 48 hours in your refrigerator. Then reheat them in a saucepan or skillet over medium heat.

I’ve also been known to dump a frozen block of meatballs and sauce in a pan and heat them up that way. What can I say? I’m human and sometimes I don’t remember to take food out of the freezer until hungry people are staring at me and asking for food.


Slow Cooker Meatballs in Tomato Sauce Recipe

  • Prep time: 30 minutes
  • Cook time: 8 hours
  • Yield: Makes about 40 meatballs


For the sauce:

  • 1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 15-oz can crushed tomatoes or tomato sauce
  • 3/4 medium onion, finely diced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

For the meatballs:

  • 3/4 cup bread crumbs
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 4 cloves minced garlic
  • 1/4 medium onion, finely diced
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves
  • 1 3/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 1 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 cup shredded Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 pound 90/10 ground beef
  • 1 pound ground Italian turkey sausage

Special equipment:


1 Make the sauce: Set your slow cooker to low, then add the crushed tomatoes, onion, bay leaf, sugar, red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper. Give it a quick stir to combine everything.

Tomato suace, herbs and onions in a slow cooker for tomato sauce with slow cooker meatballs. Tomato suace, herbs and onions being stirred together in a slow cooker for tomato sauce with slow cooker meatballs.

2 Soak the breadcrumbs: In a medium-sized bowl, combine the breadcrumbs and milk.

Adding milk to a bowl of breadcrumbs to make meatballs. Milk and bread crumbs combined.

3 Add the other meatball ingredients: In the same bowl with the breadcrumbs, add the garlic, onion, parsley leaves, pepper, salt, oregano, cheese, and egg. Mix it all together with a fork. Add the beef and turkey. Use your hands to mix everything together just enough to be combined.

Eggs, breadcrumbs, herbs and cheese in a bowl. Eggs, breadcrumbs, herbs and cheese in a bowl being stirred together.Eggs, breadcrumbs, herbs and cheese in a bowl being stirred together with two different kinds of meat to make slow cooker meatballs.

4 Shape the meatballs: These can be quite sticky. If you keep your hands wet with water, it is much easier to roll the meat into balls. Alternatively, you can use a small #40 cookie scoop. I like to make meatballs that are smaller than a golf ball.

Pinch off about a tablespoon of meat, roll it in your hands and place it directly into the sauce. Repeat until all the meatballs are made. Some of the meatballs will not be submerged in the sauce. That’s ok. They will fall into the sauce as they cook. Do not worry.

Scooping meatballs with an ice cream scoop and dropping them into a slow cooker filled with tomato sauce. Meatballs in a slow cooker filled with tomato sauce. Meatballs in a slow cooker filled with tomato sauce.

5 Cover and cook: Secure the lid to your slow cooker and let it cook for as little as 5 hours on high or as many as 8 to 10 hours on low.

6 Serve: Serve these over spaghetti, on a hoagie bun for a meatball sandwich, or as a party appetizer on their own.

If you want to thicken the sauce, you can transfer it to a skillet set over medium-high heat and reduce it until it reaches your desired consistency. If the sauce has some fat floating on the top, just stir it in.

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Summer Miller

Summer Miller is the Senior Editor for Simply Recipes based in Nebraska. Her work has appeared in Bon Appetit, Eating Well, Grit, SAVEUR, and Every Day with Rachael Ray, among others. Her first book is New Prairie Kitchen (Agate Publishing, 2015).

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17 Comments / Reviews

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Did you make it? Rate it!

  1. Sabrina

    I usually try to cook a couple new recipes every week (I’ve been cooking for years) and honestly these are one of my favourite foods I’ve ever made. Turned it into meatball subs and they were so simply delicious. The only tweak I made was that I used mild Italian pork sausage meat in place of the turkey and they were great (I’m sure they would have tasted good no matter what)


  2. Hope

    Do you think you could use ricotta cheese in place of milk? Thanks in advance

    Show Replies (1)
  3. Donna

    Wanting to try this recipe. When you mention breadcrumbs are you talking about fresh breadcrumbs (as in making a panade) or are the breadcrumbs dried or could use panko in that case? Thank you

    Show Replies (1)
  4. Thomas

    Hi, will try this on the weekend. Wondering if I should sear the meatballs first?

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  5. Harry A.

    Update. See third message below. Our son moved away about a 10 hour ride instead of 10 minutes. We made spaghetti and meatballs again and my wife said “On my God these are the best meatballs that I ever ate.” Now since our son the bottomless pit is out of range, we are allowed to have leftovers. We had meatball subs the next day. My wife told me that they are even better the next day. Maybe you can mention not to eat all of them the first day or make twice as much. Thank you for such a good recipe.


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Meatballs in a slow cooker filled with tomato sauce with a spoon lifting a meatball out of the sauce.Slow Cooker Meatballs in Tomato Sauce