Collard greens, which have punctuated many a Southern plate for decades, might not be the first side dish you reach for — but maybe they should be. While they have a reputation for being tough and bitter, these cruciferous vegetables are packed with vitamins A, K and C, and they're high in fiber, calcium and protein. That fiber not only keeps you feeling full, but it helps with digestion, too.

Also, evidence shows promising benefits of collard greens at reducing cholesterol in the body, says Lauren Hausheer, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Dallas. A 2008 study found that steam-cooking collard greens improves their ability to bind bile acid in the digestive tract. This makes it easier for us to excrete the bile, which is made from cholesterol. As a result, cholesterol is lowered in the body.

"The fact that collard greens help reduce cholesterol can have important implications for individuals at risk of heart disease," Hausheer says. "There are also specific compound in collard greens that may help decrease cancer risk by decreasing inflammation in the body."

Collard greens also boast cancer-preventative properties, as do many cruciferous vegetables. They contain a group of substances known as glucosinolates, which are sulfur-containing chemicals. According to the National Cancer Institute, as we prepare and eat collard greens, the glucosinolates break down to form biologically active compounds such as indoles and isothiocyanates, which have been found to inhibit the development of cancer in several organs in rats and mice.

With all that's healthy about this leafy green, especially if you skip the ham hocks or bacon traditionally associated with cooking them, here are six tips to best cook and feast on collard greens.

Cooked collard greens In the Southern U.S., collard greens often are cooked with ham hocks, bacon or another smoked and salted meat. (Photo: Thomas P Johnson/Shutterstock)

1. Don't overcook them. Collard greens are especially tasty when they’re slightly steamed, braised or sauteed, Hausheer says. "Cooking them slightly may also enhance some of their health benefits," she says.

Tip: Use individual collard green leaves as sandwich wraps instead of using tortillas.

2. Consider unique ways to cook them. You shouldn’t feel limited to cooking collard greens as a side dish to accompany a protein and starch. In fact, these greens are tastiest when cooked into stir fries, omelets and soups, says Linzy Ziegelbaum, a registered dietitian in Long Island, New York.

Tip: "Substitute them in recipes anytime you see spinach, cabbage or kale," Ziegelbaum adds.

3. Pair with something sweet. Since leafy greens are high on the bitterness scale, pairing them with naturally sweet flavors, like tomatoes, can offer a nice balance and offset that bitter taste. Or serve them over coconut rice.

Tip: "I always like to season bitter vegetables with a little sea salt and fennel to offer a nice array of flavors to appeal to the palate," Hausheer says.

Collard greens sauteed with bacon A half cup of cooked collard greens has only 25 calories. (Photo: Mona Makela/Shutterstock)

4. Spice up with garlic, onions and lemon juice. If you still find collard greens less than tasty, accent them with fragrant herbs and spices.

Tip: Add collard greens to bean stews or whole grain dishes like quinoa. "This will add a definite flavor punch," says Jennifer Glockner, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Los Angeles.

5. Shop for the freshest of greens. At the grocery store, select collard green leaves that are dark-green and appear fresh, not floppy, says Glockner. In addition, once you get home and are ready to cook them, wash each leaf separately and thoroughly, either by hand or using a salad spinner, since they can be quite gritty and sandy.

Tip: Before cooking collard greens, remove the stalks as this part of the plant is considered too tough to be eaten.

6. Freeze them. Collard greens are said to be tastier and more nutritious in the cold months, after the first frost. Have more than you need at the moment? These tough greens can handle the cold and will freeze well.

Tip: Wash the leaves, cut off the woody stems, blanch in boiling water for three minutes and chill in ice water. Dry the leaves, pack into freezer bags and freeze.