This Thanksgiving, let’s be thankful that those “expiration” dates on our food don’t mean what many people think they do.

Food labels can trick American consumers into wasting their money — an industry survey taken in 2011, for example, found that 91% of consumers had tossed food on its “sell by” date for safety reasons.

That undoubtedly contributes to the average family of four discarding somewhere between $1,500 and $2,300 of food annually.

But the U.S. Department of Agriculture says that the dates printed on food products simply “help the store determine how long to display the product for sale," and "can also help the purchaser to know the time limit to purchase or use the product at its best quality. It is not a safety date.” 

With this reassurance in mind, you can use ingredients and food (and leftovers, too!) you might have otherwise thrown in the trash this Thanksgiving to help feed your family and guests. Here are some tips.

Take inventory of what you have in the pantry and freezer

Canned goods take an awfully long time to go bad — years, in fact. And according to the USDA, “Canned foods are safe indefinitely as long as they are not exposed to freezing temperatures or temperatures above 90 °F (32.2° C). If the cans look ok, they are safe to use.”

If you need an extra can of green beans or corn for a casserole, make your pantry your first shopping destination.

The same goes for the freezer -- when it comes to frozen vegetables and fruit, or maybe even an unopened roll of sausage that could be useful for a stuffing. According to FoodSafety.gov, raw sausage is still good after one to two months in the freezer.

Additionally, you can check out MyFridgeFood and Supercook to see what Thanksgiving dishes you can make with what you already have at home.

Double your savings with Thanksgiving sales

A whole turkey will remain fresh for as long as a year if it's frozen. Since it's a popular food year-round, see if your local grocer's Thanksgiving turkey sale has a purchase limit. The same goes for other sale items that might be particular to the Thanksgiving holiday.

Read more: How to find a deal on a turkey

Unused or uncooked ingredients can last

Thanksgiving dinner is a feast, so maybe you bought a few too many fruits or vegetables to cook. And since leftovers can help keep your household full for days, those purchases may go unused and start to become mushy or turn color.

But don't let them go to waste! Here are a few ways to put them to use:

  • Soft fruit is still great in smoothies and juices.
  • For many different kinds of vegetables, including greens, carrots and broccoli, soaking them in a bowl of ice water will bring them back to life.
  • Leafy greens that have begun to brown, like spinach, can still be eaten -- and enjoyed -- sauteed.
  • If you have veggies that look like they're nearing the end, toss them in a soup.

See more tips on making your food last longer.

Know how long your leftovers will keep -- refrigerated or frozen

Leftovers are just as much a part of Thanksgiving as the actual meal. And if you store them the right way, they'll last longer -- so you don't have to scarf them down at lunch the next day.

Read more: 12 ways to reduce food waste & save some money

Cooked poultry and soups will remain fresh in the fridge for several days -- and they can be just as tasty after a few months in the freezer. If you're making a squash soup, for example, freeze a couple of batches and heat them up during the cold winter months in December and January.

Know what the labels mean!

Since Thanksgiving is a season of great food, it's the perfect time to familiarize yourself with the meaning and implications of "expiration" dates on food items. Being aware of this information can help trim your grocery bills and make your food go further during the holidays -- plus, it's beneficial to know year-round!

Read more: Food Expiration Label Guide

“Most consumers don’t realize that [the labels] are really more about food quality than food safety,” one food scientist told Consumer Reports. So don't be afraid to cook with what you might've otherwise thrown away. It can save you hassle and money during the cold holiday months just as much as cookout season!

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