America’s struggling economy seems to be sending a lot of beef eaters home. A recent consumer study conducted by the American Meat Institute and the Food Marketing Institute confirms that higher fuel and transportation costs, a weakening housing market and other recessionary signals are reducing consumer spending at restaurants and forcing more consumers to eat at home. The report, “The Power of Meat  —  an In-Depth Look at Meat Through the Shoppers’ Eyes,” suggests that consumers are extremely price conscious when selecting meat. More details about this survey can be found on page 22 of this issue.

These changes in consumer spending habits can certainly be viewed in the “glass half-empty or half-full” scenario. The half-empty view is that American steakhouses will likely suffer as America’s economy declines. And, if demand for beef declines, one could logically expect market prices for live cattle to decline.

Of course, change brings opportunity, and the half-full view is that more at-home meals should produce more opportunity to sell beef through retail outlets. Indeed, that’s exactly what the folks who sell outdoor cooking grills must be hoping for. And they’ve conducted their own study, which contains some really positive news for beef producers.

When asked to pick the top foods they grill most often, according to the 18th Annual Weber GrillWatch™ Survey, hamburgers were No. 1 (64 percent), followed by steak (46 percent), chicken pieces (40 percent) and hot dogs (34 percent). Respondents’ fifth and sixth most-often-grilled foods are ribs (14 percent) and bratwurst (13 percent).

Americans say their most favorite food to grill is steak, with 34 percent of respondents. Poultry was a distant second (13 percent), hamburgers third (12 percent), then ribs (7 percent) and pork (5 percent).

While beef products held down the top two spots in the Weber GrillWatch™ Survey, 31 percent of American grill owners say they are grilling more than they were a year ago because they’re “trying to eat healthier.” And that represents some changes. For instance, 39 percent of respondents say they are grilling leaner meats, more vegetables (38 percent), more poultry (34 percent) and more fish (22 percent) than they did a year ago. And 6 percent say they are grilling more meat substitutes such as veggie burgers and tofu, while 5 percent are grilling more fruit. Women are significantly more likely than men to grill more vegetables (43 versus 33 percent) and more fruit (7 versus 4 percent).

Overall, Americans say they are grilling outdoors more than one year ago. While 54 percent say they are grilling as frequently as one year ago, 29 percent say they are grilling more often. Only 15 percent say they are grilling less often than last year.

By a wide margin, the most important reason Americans grill is for the “flavor of the food” (54 percent). “Fun” is cited next, by 11 percent of respondents. Women (11 percent) are more likely than men (5 percent) to say they grill because there are no pots and pans to clean up afterwards.

Results of this survey make it obvious why the beef industry targets the grilling season with a large share of its promotion dollars. And this year it may be even more important to promote beef for the grill as more Americans are choosing to stay at home for meals.

And there may be other opportunities for beef to make gains in consumer demand just by helping grill owners learn how to cook our product. For instance, the GrillWatch Survey asked which foods consumers would like to know how to cook better on the grill, and respondents most often cited beef roasts (24 percent) and beef brisket (20 percent). That was followed by whole chicken and whole turkey at 19 percent each.