For most of 2011, the cost of food for U.S. shoppers was like a hike up a steep hill, with prices making steady increases month by month. The good news for consumers is that prices for food at checkout have leveled and declined slightly in recent months.

The Consumer Price Index for groceries fell by 0.1 percent in November, the first time since June 2010. Still, such food items are 5.9 percent more expensive than they were this time last year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Seasonally adjusted prices are up 6.2 percent for cereals and bakery products, and up 8.7 percent for milk and dairy items.

Throw in the cost of eating out—which saw much more modest increases—and the government estimates that the price of all food will have gone up between 3.5 percent and 4.5 percent in 2011.