MMM: Chicken Pesto Meatballs In Marinara

This recipe is part of March Meatball Madness; get all the recipes right here.


Spinning today: tender chicken meatballs, fragrant with pesto, gently cooked in a dead-simple tomato sauce. It’s garlicky, basil-y goodness guaranteed to “bring the house down.”

This recipe uses ground chicken. If you can’t find it in your store, you can make it yourself. Just mince 1 pound boneless, skinless breasts in a food processor until smooth.


Chicken Pesto Meatballs in Marinara Sauce

 Serves 2-4 | Prep 10 min | Cook 25 min | Whole30 compliant

  • 1/2 cup (packed) fresh basil leaves

  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley leaves

  • 1/4 cup walnuts

  • 1 clove garlic, smashed and peeled

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

  • 3/4 teaspoon salt

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

  • dash crushed red pepper flakes

  • 1 pound ground chicken

  • 2 tablespoons warm water

  • 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda

  • 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil

  • 1-2 cloves garlic, minced

  • 1 (14.5 ounce) can crushed tomatoes

  • 1  (8 ounce) can tomato sauce

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

  • 10 large fresh basil leaves, slivered

NOTE: Why cream of tartar and baking soda? Traditional ground meat recipes are usually tenderized with breadcrumbs. I use a cream of tartar/baking soda combo to keep the meat light and juicy, with a nice, crisp exterior.


Place the basil, parsley, walnuts, garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes in the bowl of a food processor and purée until it forms a uniform paste. You may need to scrape down the sides a few times to get it to the right texture.


Place the ground chicken in a large bowl, then add the pesto. In a small bowl or measuring cup, mix the water with the cream of tartar and baking soda  — it will fizz a little. Add to the bowl with the chicken and mix until all ingredients are evenly distributed. Cover and refrigerate at least 20 minutes and up to overnight.


While the meat is chilling, start the sauce. Heat a large non-stick skillet over low heat and add the olive oil. When the oil is warm, about 2 minutes, add the crushed garlic and when it’s fragrant, about 30 seconds, add the tomatoes. Stir to combine and bring to a very low simmer.


Remove the chicken dough from the fridge. Moisten your hands with cold water and shake to remove excess. Measure a rounded tablespoon of chicken and roll into a ball between your palms. Place gently in the tomato sauce. Repeat until all the balls are nestled into the sauce. It’s OK if they touch each other and aren’t completely submerged.


Cook the meatballs in the tomato sauce, covered, about 25 minutes. Remove the lid from the pan and allow to cook another 5-10 minutes to allow the sauce to thicken a little. Add the fresh basil leaves, stir, and serve on spaghetti squash or zucchini noodles. Bonus if you drizzle with a little extra-virgin olive oil.

These taste even better after sitting in the fridge for a day. To reheat, just plunk everything in a saucepan, cover with a lid, and warm up over medium heat.

Print this recipe
Old School Italian Meat Sauce

In college, I had a 100% Italian-American boyfriend, and I was partially adopted by his very traditional family. His mom was about 4'10" and a...

Read More
Turkey & Cranberry Meatballs

Thanksgiving – a.k.a, my favorite holiday – is just two weeks away. If you're anything like me, all of the recipes popping up in my...

Read More


  • Becky Castilleja says:

    I made this tonight for my family. We really liked it, a little spicy but we enjoyed eating it!!

  • April says:

    Hi! I love your books and your blog! I am currently in the midst of making your “best chicken you will ever eat, and I may have ruined it. I fell asleep during the brining, and didn’t have time to rinse and store the breast prior to rushing out to work. Do you think it’s still good and not over seasoned? *Fingers crossed*

    • Mel says:

      I’ve brined for up to 24 hours and it’s fine. The only issue is that the texture of the chicken can get a little weird after that long — but the taste should be OK.

      • April says:

        Thank you! The chicken turned out AMAZING! I ate it for lunch over spinach salad with a little Tessamae’s Paleo Southwest Rach Dressing, so YUM. 😉

  • CH says:

    Can you also use a blender in place of fod processor

    • Mel says:

      Yes, you should be able to make the pesto in a blender. You might need to scrape down the sides a few times since there’s so little liquid.

  • malori says:

    Delish!!! These might be even better than the Moroccan meatballs. Such a simple recipe – lots of ingredients but come together so easily. Me and the bf ate almost all of it 🙂

  • Lauren says:

    Just made these with ground turkey (when I made them with chicken they lasted like two days because I couldn’t stop eating them!). Turkey was just as good!

  • Lori says:

    I have an allergy to tree nuts, can I omit the walnuts? Or replace it? I can have cashews and pistachios….

  • Sara says:

    Just made these but stuffed them with a herb goat cheese and baked them instead! Soooo good!!! Zucchini noodles for the win 🙂

  • Colleen says:

    I absolutely love these meatballs. But I recently started a Paleo version of the SCD that doesn’t allow cream of tartar. I know there are a few different types of substitutions but I was wondering which you would recommend for this recipe? 1 egg? lime juice or vinegar + baking soda? Thanks!

    • You can either skip it all together or add an egg. The egg will help with leavening a bit. You could also use baking soda + red wine or balsamic vinegar; just a little vinegar to make the baking soda activate. Enjoy!

  • Jaimewife says:

    Started researching Whole30 and found you through their website. I LOVE your blog! Quick question on the walnuts, hubby has a nut allergy and can only have pine nuts. Would that be an appropriate substitute? Thank you!!

  • Julia says:

    What is the volume of pesto you add? I have pre-made pesto in the freezer.

  • Debbie says:

    Love this recipe! Even my husband who pretty much hates the paleo/whole30 concept loves these. I usually make it with turkey mince but I have an abundance of chicken breasts in my freezer which needs using so going to make a big batch. Do I need to double the tartar/soda mix when I double the rest of the ingredients?

  • jasmine says:

    First off, I absolutely love your website and have been relying on your recipes since my first whole30 last january. I want to make these meatballs and happen to have some extra chicken breasts lying around, but I’ve already planned my meals for the week. Will these meatballs hold up in the freezer until I can incorporate them in my meal plan?

    • They freeze great! Cool the whole shebang in the fridge, then place in the freezer. Defrost in the fridge when you want to eat them, and slowly reheat the meatballs and sauce in a saucepan. Enjoy!

  • Cyndy says:

    Oh my!!! It was a comedy of errors yesterday–ground turkey wasn’t thawed, tripling the recipe wouldn’t fit in my mini-processor, etc., after 2.5 hours of prep, I decided to wait until today to make the sauce and cook the meatballs. YUMMERS!! Finding out that I am gluten and dairy intolerant isn’t so bad if all of the recipes I make taste as good as this! THANK YOU!!!

  • Cheryl says:

    My husband and I love your meatball recipes. Do you think this recipe will work with ground beef?