Dark leafy greens are a vital part of any diet and among the top-ranked of the greens is spinach. Spinach is chock-full of nutrients, including beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin and more than a dozen different flavonoids that all contribute to antioxidant and anti-cancer protection for your body.

One cup of spinach has only about 30 calories, yet it provides 987 percent of the daily recommended intake of vitamin K, 104 percent of vitamin A, and 65 percent of folate, not to mention high levels of magnesium and manganese, iron, and vitamins B1, B2, B6, C and E. Also, a cup of spinach also provides you with loads of fiber, protein and even omega-3 fats.

Spinach, like most plants, contain glycoglycerolipids, which are vital to the photosynthesis process. It also turns out that glycoglycerolipids help protect the lining of the digestive tract from damage such as inflammation. Thanks to its potassium content, spinach helps reduce the amount of oxidative stress that takes place in the body, including in our blood vessels, which helps reduce the risk of illnesses such as high blood pressure.

Spinach also helps maintain bone health thanks to that high level of vitamin K; in fact, of all the leafy greens, only kale has more vitamin K than spinach. And because of the high vitamin A content, spinach can give our skin and hair a boost by maintaining the collagen needed for healthy skin and hair.

To get the most from your spinach, eat it fresh in salads, on sandwiches or blended in fruit smoothies or savory dips. If you’re cooking it, it's best to cook it as little as possible. Steam it until just barely wilted or boil it for no more than 1 minute and discard the boiling liquid. When adding it to sautés or soups, add it at the last minute.

Also, be sure to buy organic. Like other leafy greens, spinach can contain pesticide residues; in fact, conventional spinach can have some of the highest levels of pesticide alongside kale. If you’re going for a healthy green, you won’t want to spoil the benefits by consuming pesticides and herbicides from the fields. So be sure you’re going organic when it comes to spinach.

Tofu Spinach Quiche

Tofu Spinach QuicheTofu and spinach work together with a blend of cheeses for this way-above-average quiche. (Photo: Shulevskyy Volodymyr/Shutterstock.com)
Spinach is a wonderful addition to breakfasts, so why not start your day with this nutrient-dense vegetable? This recipe calls for a blend of cheeses, herbs like dill and parsley, garlic and onion and a few surprising ingredients that make it more complex and delightful than your average quiche.

Spinach and Smoked Gouda Quiche

The smoky flavor from the Gouda goes a long way toward making this quiche a standout. You can even get away with using a ready-made pie crust to cut down the work to practically nothing.

Strawberry Spinach Salad

strawberry-spinach-saladStrawberries, almonds and feta cheese team up with fresh spinach. (Photo: AS Food studio/Shutterstock.com)

Salads are where spinach really shines and where you can get the absolute most nutrients from the leafy greens since you're eating them fresh and raw. Combine spinach with sweet strawberries, slivered almonds and a little feta cheese for a perfectly simple salad.

Individual Spinach Souffles

If you want to go a little more on the fancy side with your spinach meal, you can add it to a souffle. You don't even have to have special dishes because this recipe explains how you can use a simple muffin tin to get the job done.

Egg and Bacon Spinach Salad

Egg and Bacon Spinach SaladWhat goes better with eggs and bacon than some healthy spinach? (Photo: Enrique Gili)
For the meat lovers in the family or anyone who has a hard time eating their vegetables, you can create a salad that features eggs and bacon. This recipe goes a long way to get spinach onto anyone and everyone's plate.

Seedy Spinach Salad

Spinach and seeds pair up for a particularly healthy salad. The healthy fats, oils and nutrients from pumpkin, sesame and poppy seeds pair up with spinach to make a powerhouse salad. A squeeze of lemon juice and a dash of freshly ground pepper complete it.

Swiss Chard and Spinach Pasta

swiss-chard-and-spinach-pastaA light olive oil replaces heavy sauce in this spinach pasta dish. (Photo: hd connelly/Shutterstock.com)
A very light and flavorful pasta dish, this recipe uses a tiny bit of olive oil and some toasted pine nuts in place of a heavy sauce. That light touch helps to bring out the golden raisins and lightly wilted spinach that complete the meal.

Butternut Squash with Spinach Curry

If you think a curry is complicated to make, this will show you it really isn't. Only seven ingredients are used to make this delightful dish, which features the sweetness of plum tomatoes and butternut squash along with your all-important spinach.

Spinach Paneer

As Enrique writes about this recipe, "Paneer can be baked, sautéed or grilled without melting, making it the ideal low-calorie cheese for an Indian-inspired, creamy, spicy spinach recipe." Garlic and onion, cumin and red chili, serrano and ginger ... this recipe has so much going on that you won't want to miss out.

Heart-Smart Spinach Dip

heart-smart-spinach-dipYou can get the same delicious flavor with less fat with this heart-smart version of spinach dip. (Photo: MSPhotographic/Shutterstock.com)
If you want to enjoy rich spinach dip with minimal guilt, go for this recipe. It uses a lighter combination of mayo, yogurt and sour cream to get the same flavor with less fat. Water chestnuts add crunch while the shallot and garlic add bite. It's perfect in a bread bowl.

Spinach Yogurt Dip

A classic for the party snack table, spinach dip is one of those things everyone can enjoy. This recipe features yogurt for the creamy base, and the flavors of mint and walnut.

Apple Spinach Protein Smoothie

spinach apple protein smoothieA mix of apples and spinach make for a healthy, colorful smoothie. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)
But if you really want to be guilt-free with your spinach intake, go for the good old protein smoothie. Toss some apple, spinach, almond butter, and a couple other ingredients into a blender and voila! A healthy meal ready to go.

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.

12 recipes to elevate spinach to best-friend status
Spinach is a powerhouse of nutrients. With recipes like these, there's no excuse not to reap the health benefits.