One of the tried and true recipes in my family's repertoire is meatballs. I follow Mark Bittman's simple recipe from "How to Cook Everything," and use locally sourced, grass-fed beef, really good Parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs made from bread ends that I save in the freezer. I thought I was doing a great job at making them the best way I can for my family until earlier this week when the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report that said the consumption of red meat may cause cancer.

Ugh. In a Q&A on its website, WHO explains red meat is classified as Group 2A, meaning it's possibly carcinogenic.

In the case of red meat, the classification is based on limited evidence from epidemiological studies showing positive associations between eating red meat and developing colorectal cancer as well as strong mechanistic evidence. Limited evidence means that a positive association has been observed between exposure to the agent and cancer but that other explanations for the observations (technically termed chance, bias, or confounding) could not be ruled out.

So, while WHO is not saying with certainty that red meat is a carcinogen, the findings give me the definite impression that I need to cut down on the amount of red meat I feed my family. As it is, I've cut it far down from what it used to be simply for environmental reasons. And while I'm not saying I'll never serve a cheeseburger again, perhaps I need to rethink some of the other foods I serve, including meatballs.

What is red meat?

The first thing I did when reconsidering meatballs was look through the recipes here on MNN, avoiding all the meats in question. According to a Q&A on the WHO website, that includes "all mammalian muscle meat, including, beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat."

Red meat-less meatballs recipes

What I'll try first is to use ground chicken or ground turkey in place of beef in my regular meatball recipe. If my kids don't like that change, I may need to try a new recipe altogether. Since we do meatballs in a red sauce with spaghetti or on a crusty roll with Provolone, all of these are "spaghetti and meatball" type meatballs.

  1. Chicken Meatballs, Italian Style: If Bittman's beef meatball recipe doesn't translate well into a chicken meatball recipe, then I can try his chicken-specific recipe from The New York Times. This recipe doesn't use ground chicken. It uses flavorful chicken thigh meat that's processed in a food processor.
  2. Quick Bean and Turkey Italian Meatballs: The thought of sneaking some protein-packed beans into meatballs is intriguing. Butter beans join extra-lean ground turkey. Home cooks who have reviewed the recipe on Allrecipes have commented that the beans add moisture to the meatballs and several have used whatever beans they've had on hand like garbanzo, great northern and cannellini. It's also been noted that they freeze well.
  3. Polpette di Lupo or Meatless Meatballs: If I'm going to go totally meatless, I think trying a recipe from someone known for good Italian food is a good place to start. This recipe is from Mario Batali, who has a Michelin-starred Italian restaurant in New York City, Babbo. The recipe replaces meat with milk-soaked country bread, and it has a 5-star review on the Food Network site. It's accompanied by a tomato sauce recipe and could be a good replacement for the meatballs on spaghetti night.
  4. Chef John's Meatless Meatballs: Another Allrecipes pick that has good home cook reviews, this recipe uses mushrooms and quick-cooking oats to replace the meat. Several reviewers said that to get a texture similar to traditional meatballs, it's best to chop the mushrooms and onions in a food processor.
  5. Meatless Meatball Heroes: This Rachael Ray recipe uses almonds, chickpeas and mozzarella to make meatless meatballs. She puts them on a baguette to make a hero sandwich, but there's not reason these meatballs couldn't be used with pasta, too.

You know, I wasn't thrilled to have to search for a new meatball recipe because my go-to recipe is so loved by my family. But, honestly, the red meat-less meatball recipes I uncovered in this search have me excited to try something new, particularly the bean and turkey version.

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.