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Chicken Meatball Soup with Zest (30 Minutes)

This chicken meatball soup recipe is a delicious combination of meatballs, tender orzo pasta, savory chicken broth and vegetables. A hearty, comforting meal-in-a-bowl, kicked up with lemon zest in just 30 minutes. 

The soup is also known as Italian wedding soup. It did not actually originate at weddings, but it is popular at Italian American weddings.

bowl of chicken meatball soup on wooden table

There are tons of recipes for meatball and wedding soup out there, all pretty similar. This one has one unique feature – lemon zest. The fresh pop of flavor from the zest totally brightens up the soup while still maintaining that yummy comfort food taste and feel.

The meatballs in the recipe are light and flavorful. I like to use dark meat ground chicken to make them extra juicy and tasty. Another good meatball option is our all-purpose Italian meatballs.  Or, if you have your own favorite meatball recipe, go ahead and use that instead.

Make this recipe because…

  • It’s a delicious recipe with a wonderful combination of flavors and textures from the slightly chewy orzo, tender veggies and savory meatballs. A satisfying meal in just 30 minutes.
  • This is the kind of soup where the flavors are even better the next day which makes this great for meal prep.

Ingredients – tailored to your taste

orzo, baby spinach, shaved carrots, lemon, parmesan, onion, oil
Soup ingredients: broth (not pictured), orzo, lemon, oil, shaved carrots, parmesan cheese, chopped onions and baby spinach.
meatball mixture
Meatball mixture: ground chicken, bread crumbs, fresh herbs, onion, egg.

Meatball mixture: I use ground chicken (lighter), but you can use your favorite ground meat. Ground turkey, pork, beef or a combination all work well.

Breadcrumbs: Store-bought regular or Italian breadcrumbs. You can also make homemade breadcrumbs in you prefer.

Chicken broth: Homemade or store-bought. I use an undiluted concentrated chicken broth with less water than called for (for bigger flavors). I also love Better Than Bouillon roast chicken paste mixed with water.

Pasta: Use any tiny pasta. I love orzo and acini de pepe in this recipe.

Spinach: Use fresh baby spinach or frozen. You can substitute the spinach with kale or escarole if you prefer.

Step by step instructions

meatballs formed on cutting board
Combine meatball ingredients lightly. Form into small meatballs. Bake for 8-10 minutes. Alternatively…
pan fried meatballs in skillet
If pan frying meatballs, you only need a few minutes on each side. They will finish cooking in the soup.
plate with 4 panfried meatballs on left and baked meatballs on right
Pan fried meatballs are on the left. Baked meatballs are on the right.
pot of chicken meatball soup
Make the soup: Sauté onions and garlic in a large pot. Add broth, carrots and orzo. Cook until tender. Add meatballs and spinach to the rich broth. Cook a bit longer. Finish with lemon zest.
bowl of wedding soup with baguette beside it
Serve with crusty bread.

Tips

  1. Meatballs
    • Be sure to brown the meatballs on each side until they have good color. This gives them great flavor.
    • Don’t over mix the meatball mixture because it can cause them to be dense and tough.
    • If the meatballs stick to your hands while rolling, wet your hands with a little water and use a gentle touch.
  2. Parmesan rind: Don’t throw away the parmesan rind if you are grating fresh Parmesan cheese. Save and freeze it to throw in marinara or other homemade sauces or soups. It melts slowly and provides wonderful nutty flavor.
  3. Try this meatball marinara sub recipe if you have any leftover meatballs.

Recipe FAQs

Can I make this soup in the slow cooker?

Yes, you can. It’s best to use a slow cooker that has a sauté function so that you can brown the meatballs. If it doesn’t, you can brown the meatballs and sauté the veggies in the skillet. Here’s a recipe for slow cooker wedding soup by Food.com.

Can I freeze the chicken meatball soup?

You certainly can. Just keep in mind that the longer orzo or any pasta soaks in liquid the softer it becomes, but the soup still tastes amazing.

To freeze it, transfer the cooled soup into a freezer-safe bag or airtight container and freeze it up for about to 3 months. Thaw in the fridge overnight before adding to a large saucepan to reheat.

Why is it sometimes called Italian Wedding Soup?

Chicken meatball soup is often referred to as Italian wedding soup based on the Italian phrase minestra maritata which means a combination or “marriage” of greens and the meat.

What to serve with it

Serve a big bowl of this delicious homemade soup with a hot loaf of crusty bread. Or as a starter before a main course meal like our 30-minute eggplant parmesan or creamy polenta with tomato herb salad

Shortcuts

Buy frozen meatballs. Or, use homemade meatballs that you have stashed in the freezer. If you’re making meatballs for something else such as spaghetti and meat sauce, make some extra and freeze them (flash freeze on a baking sheet, then pile them into a sealed freezer bag, ready to use as needed)

Cook the meatballs in the soup. To save a couple of steps, you can drop the meatballs and pasta directly into the boiling broth without cooking them separately ahead of time.

I prefer baking or pan frying the meatballs first, though, to let the fat release onto the pan instead of the soup. And, since you’re cooking the meatballs and making the soup at the same time, you’re not saving a ton of time.

Make Ahead 

I love this soup left over because the flavors blend even better over time. It can be stored in the fridge for 4-5 days. If the noodles absorb too much broth, add some more when reheating. Freeze the soup, once cooled, in an airtight container up to 3 months. 

wedding soup in a bowl p

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bowl of chicken meatball soup on wooden table
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Chicken Meatball Soup with Zest (30 Minutes)

Chicken meatball soup is a delicious combination of meatballs, orzo, chicken broth and vegetables that comes together for a hearty, comforting meal-in-a-bowl made in 30 minutes. This one is kicked up with lemon zest. 
Prep Time10 mins
Cook Time20 mins
Total Time30 mins
Course: Main Course, Soup
Cuisine: Italian
Servings: 6
Author: Cheryl

Ingredients

For meatballs

  • 1 pound ground chicken, Note 1
  • 1 tablespoon grated onion (or 1/4 teaspoon onion powder)
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup breadcrumbs or panko breadcrumbs
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped herbs (or 1 tbsp dried) parsley, oregano or basil
  • salt and black pepper to taste (about 1/2 – 1 tsp)
  • Optional: 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese

For Soup

  • 2 teaspoons oil
  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons garlic about 2 garlic cloves
  • 8 cups Chicken broth
  • 3/4 cup dry orzo pasta (or acini de pepe pasta)
  • 1 large carrot, thinly shaved with a peeler then roughly chopped (or finely diced)
  • 6 cups fresh baby spinach, roughly chopped, Note 2
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest grated from 1 lemon
  • Optional: 1/4-1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Instructions

  • MAKE THE MEATBALLS: In a medium bowl, combine ground meat, egg, breadcrumbs, onion, salt, pepper (and Parmesan and basil if using). Mix lightly with clean hands until well combined. Don't overmix or they will be tough. Form into mini chicken meatballs (3/4-1 1/2 inches/1.9-3.8 cm). Use wet hands to form the meatballs as they will be sticky. Partially fry or bake meatballs. Note 3 for shortcut.
    °To fry: Heat non stick pan to medium high. Add a few drops of olive oil. Brown meatballs in pan an fry for 2-3 minutes per side. Do not overcrowd pan. Do in 2 batches if needed. Transfer to plate lined with a paper towel to absorb grease.
    °To bake: Heat oven to 425F/218C. Place meatballs on parchment lined pan. Bake for 8-10 minutes, depending on size of meatballs. Transfer to plate lined with a paper towel to absorb grease.
  • ASSEMBLE THE SOUP AND SERVE: In large soup pot or large dutch oven, heat the oil on medium high heat. Add onions and sauté for several minutes until fragrant and translucent. Add garlic and cook another 30 seconds. Add broth, orzo (Note 4) and carrots. Cook for 10 minutes until carrots are softened and orzo is cooked. Add meatballs and spinach. Stir. Reduce heat to medium and cook for another 8-10 minutes. Add lemon zest. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. Add Parmesan cheese if desired or pass it at the table. Serve in bowls with crusty warm bread on the side.

Notes

  1. Chicken alternatives: You can also use beef, turkey, ground pork (or any combination), ideally with 10-15% fat for more flavor and moisture.
  2. Fresh spinach substitute: If you don’t have fresh spinach on hand, you can use frozen spinach, thawed and drained to yield about 1 cup (about 1/2 a frozen 10-ounce package). Kale or escarole will work well too. 
  3. Shortcut for cooking meatballs and pasta: Drop meatballs and pasta directly into boiling broth without cooking them separately ahead of time. Just cook them in the broth on medium-high for about 10-12 minutes.  
  4. Cooking orzo: To reduce the starch in the soup, you can cook the orzo (or other small pasta) separately. Then add pasta to the soup along with the cooked meatballs. 
  5. Variations
    • Fresh herbs and spices: Try adding chopped basil leaves or fresh parsley or an Italian seasoning blend. Add a little heat to soup with red pepper flakes or a pinch of cayenne pepper.
    • Other add-ins: Add a cup of canned tomatoes, drained and chopped; chopped green onion; or parmesan cheese.
  6. Make ahead: Store leftover soup in the fridge for 4-5 days. If the noodles absorb too much broth, add some more when reheating. Cool and freeze in an airtight container up to 3 months. 
 
Nutritional value estimates do not include optional Parmesan cheese. 

Nutrition

Calories: 285kcal | Carbohydrates: 25g | Protein: 28g | Fat: 9g | Saturated Fat: 3g | Cholesterol: 74mg | Sodium: 418mg | Potassium: 848mg | Fiber: 2g | Sugar: 3g | Vitamin A: 5020IU | Vitamin C: 12mg | Calcium: 78mg | Iron: 4mg
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