Healthy Chicken Chili with Barley


For a while, I’ve been into the idea of eating meat-lite, but the trip to Thailand really reinforced the beauty of appreciating a dish’s noodles, sauces, and vegetables–and few bites of meat. Not that I had any trouble with that before. In fact, when I began eating meat again after my vegetarian days, I swore to practice meat lite-ness, and I’ve mostly stayed true to that ideal. Except when Shake Shack cravings hit.

Growing up, my mom usually made vegetarian chili. For a long time, I didn’t associate chili with meat, lite or not. The closest we have to mom’s chili recipe on the site is this black bean and sweet potato chili.

Of course then I got proposed to over a classic chili con carne. That introduced meaty chili into my life with a bang.

Whatever flavors and components go into chili, I still think the best part is on top: the condiments. Cheese, sour cream or yogurt, cubed avocado, broken-up tortilla chips.

So while we’re concentrating on the topping, I decided to slip into the recipe and make it really nourishing and healthful. This one’s got shredded chicken, but not that much (meat-lite, remember?), a handful of barley, tons of green vegetables, and white beans. The barley thickens the stew, making warm, spicy bowls of it feel more indulgent than they are.


Healthy Chicken Chili with Barley
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 4 to 6
This chili is best the second day – feel free to make in advance.
For the chili:
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 green pepper, trimmed and diced
  • 1 zucchini, diced
  • 1 poblano pepper, trimmed and minced
  • 1½ teaspoons oregano
  • 1½ teaspoons cumin
  • 1½ teaspoons chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • pepper
  • 1½ pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
  • ½ cup pearl barley
  • 5 cups water
  • 1 can diced green chiles
  • One 14-ounce can white beans, rinsed
  • Juice of half a lime
For serving:
  • Plain Greek yogurt, 2% or full fat
  • 1 avocado, diced
  • Fresh cilantro leaves
  • Shredded sharp cheddar cheese
  1. Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add onion, garlic, green pepper, poblano, and zucchini and sauté until all are translucent, about 10 minutes. Push the veggies to the side, and add the chicken skin side down. Brown the chicken for a minute on each side. Add the spices, salt, and a few grinds of pepper, and mix everything together. Add the barley and 5 cups of water. Bring the chili to a boil, then lower the heat, cover, and cook, simmering, for 40 minutes. Remove the chicken from the stew to a plate and leave for about 15 minutes, until cool enough to handle. Using two forks, pull all the meat off the bones and shred it. Add the green chiles and white beans to the stew and return the shredded chicken, discarding the bones and skin. Stir together and cook, uncovered, for another 10 minutes. Squeeze in the lime juice and taste for salt, adding more as needed.
  2. Top with yogurt, lime, cilantro, avocado.


Posted in: Easy!
  • Jenne Kopalek

    Would have never associated avocado with chili. Sounds amazing!

    • BGSK

      It competes with cheese in adding a luscious creaminess–try it!

  • kelsey

    Look great! I’m going to try it in the crockpot!

    • BGSK

      Let us know how it works in the slow cooker!

  • marie @ little kitchie

    I’m a big believer in meat-liteness as well. And I agree about the toppings – I always do a dollop of Greek yogurt, cubes of avocado and melty cheese. Going to definitely try this recipe out next – never can have too many good chili recipes!!

  • Culinarium London

    Wow, such an original recipe. I must try this!

  • marcie @ flavor the moments

    I agree, the condiments definitely make a soup go from great to over the top. I love nice, cool, avocado chunks on top of a hearty soup with some spice! I can’t get enough soup lately, so I can’t wait to give this a try!

    • BGSK

      Ha! Glad you’re with me, Marcie!

  • Sarah

    Hi! This looks really good. I’ve never had zucchini in chili before. Your instructions at the very end, after adding the chili and beans and chicken, “Stir together and cook, uncovered, for another 1 minutes.” Looks like a typo, how many minutes should it be? I can’t wait to try this out!

    • BGSK

      You’re so right, Sarah – it was supposed to say 10 minutes. Thanks for catching!

  • Laura

    Made this last night and loved it! I will definitely be making it again. Thanks for the recipe!

  • Kate

    I made this late last night in preparation for the Beyonce Bowl, and it smelled so good I couldn’t resist a whole bowl for sampling. Can’t wait to share it with my guests this afternoon!

    • BGSK

      Beyonce Bowl – what a perfect term.

  • Joanna

    Made this to de-tox following Super Bowl junk food binge 2013. It was delish and even pleased my picky husband. I did end up with a good amount of grease I had to skim off the top of the chili, so next time I would probably remove the skin from the chicken thighs before cooking. Thanks for the great recipe!

  • Amber

    I just made this recipe tonight and it turned out AMAZING! This is definitely getting filed away in my mental Make Again folder. The only change I made is that I used a can of diced tomatoes with green chilies because my grocery store was out of canned green chilies.

  • Rachel

    I made this recipe last night and I am really enjoying it! I substituted boneless skinless chicken breast for the chicken thighs, pinto beans for the white beans, and wheat berries (pre-cooked for about 1 hour in boiling water) for the barley. The wheat berries added some great texture! Great recipe and thank you for sharing!

  • Amanda

    Hi! I am not a fan of zucchini. What can I use instead? And can I use rice instead of barley?

  • Lesley

    I wish I asked this before I started cooking, but… Are you supposed to keep the soup cooking (covered) while the chicken cools for 15 mins? That’s what I’m doing (because the barley is still pretty hard) so hopefully that’s right! It smells great!

    • BGSK

      Lesley–yes, you leave the chili simmering. The barley should be pretty close to done after 40 minutes though. Is there a chance you bought hull-on barley instead of pearl? That will take longer to get soft. Glad it smells delicious. Enjoy!

  • Akons

    So amazing. My new favorite recipe. Easy!! Made it for a soup potluck, first soup gone! A must try.

    • BGSK

      Hurrah! So glad you enjoyed!

  • Crystal

    I substituted the skin chicken thighs for skinless chicken breast, added corn, had no barley so used instant rice the last 10minutes. it really would of been even better w the lime but I only had a lemon. I also used sour cream instead of yogurt as a topping. It was AMAZING!!!! The kids and Husband(whom is picky w veggies) had no idea there was an entire diced bell pepper, onion and zucchini. So so good, highly recommend this!

  • Rita

    what is the nutritional information?

    • BGSK

      I’m sorry – I don’t post nutritional information here, but there are a number of sites that should help if you plug in the ingredients. Enjoy!

  • Sarah

    If I leave the barley out should I put in less water?

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